‘Whiplash’ At The Oscars: Damien Chazelle’s Inspiration And The Pursuit For Perfection

Whiplash should have been happy just to be mentioned with the rest of the Best Picture contenders at the 87th Academy Awards. Surrounded by the likes of period and docudramas and flight of fancy navel gazing about the acting profession, Damien Chazelle’s film was always going to be a dark horse in the Oscar race.

Yet, by the end of the night, Whiplash had more Oscars than American Sniper, The Theory of Everything, and The Imitation Game. It may have not won the “big one,” but it was recognized in the major category for Actor in a Supporting Role (where J.K. Simmons beat out notables like Edward Norton of Birdman and Mark Ruffalo of Foxcatcher) and achieved technical merits for Film Editing and Sound Mixing.

That may not sound like much but consider, if you will, that the Sony Pictures Classics release had an uphill battle to get made. In 2013, Damien went to Park City, Utah, where a short version of Whiplash played at the Sundance Film Festival. It won the Short Film Jury Award. At that same festival, actor Miles Teller shared a special jury award for acting with Shailene Woodley for their film The Spectacular Now.

A year later, J.K. Simmons reprised his role of Band Teacher (now given the name Terrence Fletcher) from Damien’s short with Miles playing his pupil, Andrew, a music conservatory school student with aspirations to be one of the greatest jazz drummers of all time. Playing like the twisted version of Mr. Holland’s Opus, if Richard Dreyfuss’s Mr. Holland character was replaced by R. Lee Ermey’s Full Metal Jacket drill sergeant, Chazelle’s Whiplash is a music drama that moves to the beat of a different drum.

Simmons’s character is the jazz instructor from hell, hurling insults and chairs to those students who are unable to meet his level of expected perfection.

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.” — Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons)

The film is loosely based on Damien Chazelle’s experiences as part of Princeton High School’s Studio Band, the school’s super-elite jazz orchestra. Chazelle’s Mr. Fletcher was Anthony Biancosino. Mr. Biancosino was demanding which instilled in Damien a greater passion for jazz drumming, according to his mother, Celia Chazelle, who was recently interviewed by New Jersey’s Trenton Times.

“When he got to be good enough to get into this competitive band, this fear made him learn jazz very well to keep up with the other band members.”

The passion about wanting to be the best and the fear of failure is what fuels Whiplash. Here was a film about an adolescent who was obsessively ambitious to be great that it left him with blistered and bloody fingers and being psychologically scarred.

Damien Chazelle’s film is a character study that refuses to pass judgment on Fletcher’s teaching methods. With a look of consternation Andrew’s pursuit of perfection is both poignant and troublesome. Poignant in his dedication to an artistic pursuit. Troublesome because it further alienates him from the rest of the world.

Maybe it’s a good thing, then, that J.K. Simmons during his Oscar acceptance speech reminded everyone to talk to their parents more often.

[Image via the New York Times]