Soundtracking is a regular column that appears on looking at the music featured in the biggest new releases both in theatre and on home video. Shane McNeil goes into the roots of Jazz on screen with the music for Damien Chazells’s latest film: WHIPLASH.

Originally published on – October 28, 2014.

At least audiences have the music of Whiplash to give them some relief over 100-plus minutes of bloodied hands and psychological trauma that were unleashed this past weekend.

Or maybe not.

The newest film from the young tandem of writer/director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz takes a selection of jazz standards and turns them into a battle ground between aspiring jazz drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) and his perfectionist mentor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). As Fletcher pushes Andrew to his physical and psychological limits as a musician, it is the repetition and perfection of a collection of standards that becomes the film’s musical theme.

Ironically, it is the repetition of a simple melody – one that Fletcher is seen performing on a piano in a jazz club in the film – that would serve as the foundation for Hurwitz score with fellow composer Tim Simonec. But it is the working of the standards that sticks with viewers once Whiplash is finished, particularly Hank Levy’s arrangement of the eponymous number and John Wasson’s handling of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.” The piece becomes one of the film’s crucial melodies and its perfection becomes Andrew’s obsession and one of Fletcher’s favourite torture devices. More on Sir Duke later, but first a listen at what the film is throwing down.

Chazelle and Hurwitz aren’t new to the jazz game, but Whiplash does see them graduating to a higher degree of difficulty.

The pair’s debut feature was similarly one that used jazz as an engrained narrative element, but in a much more free-form manner. Their 2009 effort Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench tells the story of a couple’s reminiscences on their failed relationship in a lo-fi, black and white tone. Guy being a jazz musician, the film is dappled with performance pieces, including impromptu ensemble sessions, individual rehearsal sequences and even a full-blown song and (tap!) dance number near the film’s conclusion.

Whiplash is a more disciplined look at both the filmmaking and the music, making the order and precision essential to a great jazz ensemble a nice foil for both the story and the filmmaking procedure. Guy and Madeline does contain some very entertaining original numbers courtesy of Chazelle though, so before getting back to Whiplash and its influences, take a look back.

The Whiplash score draws from some of the classic jazz scores that dominated the late 1950s and early 1960s. Ellington, mentioned earlier, provided one of the very best in Otto Preminger’s 1959 thriller Anatomy of a Murder. The jazz score would become a staple for certain filmmakers – Preminger himself has a few classic examples – and would bring some true jazz giants into the scoring game, including saxophonist Sonny Rollins’ work on Alfie in 1965 and Quincy Jones’ score for In Cold Blood in ’67.

But before it came to Hollywood as a full-blown trend, it had some of its greatest moments overseas in some key films from the French new wave. This is slyly acknowledged in Whiplash as Andrew and his father step into a repertory theatre early into the movie to watch the 1955 French gangster classic Rififi.

Rififi’s score would be one of several from the late 1950s that would help set the original jazz composition game to new heights in the coming years and its inclusion in Whiplash surely must be a recognition of that debt. What’s interesting about Rififi as it pertains to the history of jazz on screen is that its score was composed by Georges Auric and its musical director was Michel Legrand. Auric worked with great 1930s musical-maker Rene Clair and later scored much of the key works of visionary director Jean Cocteau. Meanwhile, Legrand scored some of the greatest French musicals of all-time with Jacques Demy in the 1960s including The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The mention of Rififi, then blends both the team’s showier past in Guy and Madeline alongside its strive to the greater big band tradition of the likes of Ellington and Jones in Whiplash.

To wrap things up, how about what is possibly the greatest jazz score of all-time? An American composer working with a French filmmaker once again… Here’s Miles Davis’ sublime work with Louis Malle on Elevator to the Gallows.