By Karol Krok
If there’s one sure thing about film dedicated to jazz musicians, it must be that they’ll almost always contain some really good tunes. It’s just in the very nature of this topic. Damien Chazelle directed Whiplash, starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. It’s a story of young drummer who wants to become famous player and, by chance, becomes a pupil of one fierce and demanding teacher. While there’s nothing new to this concept as such, the film is almost universally loved by critics and, after successful festival run, it’s finally getting a theatrical release courtesy of Sony Pictures Worldwide.
The soundtrack was always to feature some big band jazz standards and possible new compositions. Composer Justin Hurwitz faced a dilemma of what to do with his original score – he wanted neither orchestra, nor electronics. And certainly not jazz, for that matter. In his search for a perfect representation, he decided to experiment a little with both live instruments but manipulated in different ways.
Soundtrack album, as released through Varese Sarabande is divided in three acts, creating an almost storyarc of main character in purely musical terms. The proper score by Hurwitz is presented mostly in the middle section (aptly titled ‘If You Want It, Earn It’) while the opening and closing segments present more source music type of material from numerous stage performances and rehearsals.
‘Practicing’ introduces composer’s digitally manipulated musical concepts created for dramatic scenes. It’s an interesting alternate at the same big band style but in a more ethereal dramatic context. It’s a definitely more tense and hypnotic soundscape from anything else on this film but it perfectly encapsulates young musician’s struggle and pursuit of seemingly ghostly and unreachable goals (‘Accident’). The almost unreal tone of this writing sometimes slightly recalls a psychedelic distorted jazz in Greame Revell’s Marv portions of Sin City from 2005, although less brutal in that respect. Appropriately for this film, ‘Drum & Drone’ showcases percussion solos while ‘Drum Battle’ and ‘Dismissed’ venture into surprisingly dark territory of low sustained textures.
‘Fletcher’s Song in the Club’, a source piece written by Hurwitz to be performed by Simmons in one scene, serves as a main thematic idea for the original score. In between cues, several film quotes from both Teller and Simmons chronicle the uneasy partnership of those two characters. It might be a bit intrusive for some listeners who want purely music but they’re well-chosen clips and work well with overall concept of this album.
A film dedicated to big band jazz couldn’t do without some jazz standards. Of particular is a nine minute ‘Caravan’ by Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol and arranged by John Wasson. It’s a real tour-de-force, especially showcasing. Also, the 1992 recording ‘Intoit’ by Stan Getz makes an appearance as well.
Numerous original songs were composed by Michael Giacchino’s frequent collaborator, Tim Simonec. Having extensive experience in the field and having conducted so many jazzy scores (like The Incredibles, for example) he feels right at home in an environment like this (‘Too Hip To Retire’ and ‘Upswingin’). These pieces are among the most joyful and enjoyable elements of this soundtrack. Hurwitz himself wrote three period-like pieces in the latter portion of this soundtrack – ‘No Two Worlds’, ‘When I Wake’ and ‘Casey’s Song’. They are all presented in, possibly little gimmicky, archival sound. Tim Simonec rounds off the album with his rehearsal source piece.
Ultimately, Whiplash is not the kind of album one would recommend to film music fans who might expect something more straightforward dramatically. Apart from its brief middle section, there is very little score presented on Varese Sarabande disc. However, the integration of original music, jazz standards and new songs is impressive in itself and works seamlessly as one whole. Enjoyable source piece exercise serves as a nice alternative to more typical film writing and might appeal to anyone even remotely interested in this big band genre.
Whiplash is out now from Varese Sarabande Records