Whiplash: Strike up the band for visual jazz experience

How can you see jazz? It’s easy to hear and a delight to listen to, but how can one visualize jazz in pictures rather than sounds?

Is it in a contrast of colors? Harsh browns and tans counterbalancing bright hues of blue? The dueling colors of black and white intermixing like yin and yang.

The best independent film of our time — winner of both the audience and grand jury awards at the 30th Sundance Film Festival in January — explores just such a topic.

“Whiplash,” which easily moves into the top spot as 2014’s best film, features Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in an emotional tug-of-war style dance that engulfs the viewer in a 106-minute free-style jazz duet of obsession and the pursuit of greatness.

Teller’s Andrew, a first-year jazz student at one of the country’s top music schools, goes head-to-head with top band instructor Simmons in a game of cat-and-mouse musical psychology featuring some of the best back and forth dialogue this side of “Silence of the Lambs.”

Director Damien Chazelle‘s second foray into feature-length filmmaking is a cinematic spectacle from the opening seconds with young drum prodigy Andrew plodding away at his kit through the visually stunning final performance sequence that amounts to beautiful musical combat.

Each and every note, both visually and audibly, is carefully crafted by Chazelle and right on point thanks in large part to a brilliant cutting by the film’s editor Tom Cross, who splices together the most stunning musical sequences filmed in nearly a decade.

Teller, a drummer in his own right, plays all of Andrew’s music with fervor. All of the remaining musicians in the film are accomplished professionals or music students, which gives the movie added authenticity.

The soundtrack is worth a listen on its own, but viewers should take care to see the film prior to listening to the score in its entirety as several scenes between Teller and Simmons are included as tracks.

While jazz is definitely the driving force of “Whiplash,” the film is — at its core — a spiraling case of obsession.

Both leads turn in the best performances of their careers, with a resurrected Paul Reiser playing a key supporting role as Teller’s father.

The tense dynamic between teacher and student is brought to fortissimo thanks in large part to the effortless chemistry Simmons and Teller share on screen.

Intentional or not, “Whiplash” is visual jazz, audio art come to life on screen in deep, richer layers of color and a film sure to be atop most critics’ best of 2014 lists.

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