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Films

How 'Whiplash' gave us one of the most intense scenes in cinema history

We’re taking our time to dive into one of the best films of the 21st century, the quite astounding Whiplash and see how it gave us one of the best scenes in creating tension we have ever witnessed.

If one word could be used to describe the filmography of Damien Chazelle, it would be ‘rhythm’. With an education in jazz music as well as filmmaking, Chazelle spent time as a drummer at Princeton High School before ditching the hobby and using his fondness for the art form to influence his style as a writer and director, creating three films heavily influenced by rhythm, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, La La Land and Whiplash

Whilst his 2009 film Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench may have been his debut, he rose to prominence after the release of Whiplash in 2014, with the frenetic drama earning five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Based on his experience as a high school drummer, with his particularly harsh teacher being the inspiration for J.K. Simmons’ Terence Fletcher in the film, Chazelle wrote and directed Whiplash from a place of experience.

Beloved by both fans and critics, the film is recognised as one of the greatest movies of the 21st century and an exemplary piece of contemporary cinema that utilises all the modern techniques the industry has to offer. Though, within its tight 105-minute runtime, there is one scene that stands out as being note-perfect, cranking up tension whilst accurately building character with every beat. 

Rehearsing Hank Levy’s ‘Whiplash’ as part of an ensemble, this early scene in Chazelle’s movie is one of the viewer’s first chances to experience protagonist Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) as a drummer. Initially enthusiastic and relaxed, with bendy, lubricated limbs, Neiman’s confidence is slowly peeled away, layer by layer, at the hands of the sadistic jazz instructor Terence Fletcher, a bald-headed brute of a man whose body swells with muscle and skull stretches with stress.

Focusing on Neiman, Fletcher constantly stops his student before he can even muster any rhythm, insisting that he is either “rushing” or “dragging”. Built with masterful tension by Chazelle, the scene has a rhythm and tale of its own as the bullish intimidating force of Fletcher steadily damages the innocent vulnerability of the protagonist, who looks as lost as a small child in a new busy shopping mall.

As the back and forth continues, the stress grows, ever-tightening like the strings of a finely-tuned violin, with Chazelle adding in clever, nuanced script notes to add a pang of anxiety, with Neiman starting a little ahead of Fletcher’s cue on two occasions. Eventually, it appears as though he has sorted the minute issue, with Fletcher retiring across the room in a meditative stroll, only for the teacher to hurl a chair at his student, causing a crash of symbols.

Stomping towards Neiman, cinematographer Sharone Meir brings the camera low to share the vulnerability of the student whose knowledge of the subject pales in comparison to the bullish force before him. Focusing only on the duo, we are forced to endure Fletcher’s brutal words of criticism, and Simmons’ extraordinarily intimidating Oscar-winning performance, with Meir lodging us between the pair of them, making us view the psychological ambush from Fletcher.

Meir has no interest in focusing on any other band member in the room, after all, why should we? Students are silent, avoiding an attack by not making a sound. They stare ahead or at the floor, as the cinematographer tilts up to show blush-red faces for a brief moment. No doubt, we would prefer to be doing the same thing, but by placing us between the duo, Chazelle makes us victims to Fletcher’s temper and, therefore, empathetic to Neiman’s physical and emotional torment. 

The scene is a moment of utter manipulation and sinister control, which perfectly paves the way for the central relationship to be explored and analysed. Indeed, as music lovers have discovered, Neiman wasn’t actually dragging at all, with the scene likely being a moment of engineered intimidation which Fletcher used to discover whether the protagonist had the metal to become a worthy student of jazz.

As a moment of frenetic contemporary drama and incomparable cinematic rhythm, the scene is a masterful moment in a sensational arrival to the silver screen for Chazelle.

Watch Whiplash on Netflix now.