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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » Whiplash (Blu-ray)
Whiplash (Blu-ray)
Sony Pictures // R // February 24, 2015 // Region A
List Price: $34.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Randy Miller III | posted March 10, 2015 | E-mail the Author

Damien Chazelle's Whiplash premiered at Sundance in January 2014, captivated audiences during its theatrical run later that year, won three out of its five Academy Award nominations last month, and was released on Blu-ray and DVD exactly two weeks ago. The dust hasn't exactly settled yet, of course, but finally seeing it for the first time now would provide yours truly with an understandable excuse for calling it "overrated". It's all too often that critics---myself included---get swept up in the excitement of a popular film that virtually came out of nowhere, singi its praises to the rooftops...and promptly forget about it soon after, once the next best thing has come along.

Fortunately, Whiplash is not overrated...whatever that means. It's a captivating, tense drama that's known for several big moments but plays many of the small ones even better. It's an ambitious sophomore effort from a director with a personal appreciation for the subject matter: jazz music, drumming, and pushing forward when something's pushing back. In fact, Chazelle directed a self-titled short film in 2013 (also featuring J.K. Simmons as the fearsome instructor, and included on this Blu-ray as a bonus feature), but was unable to secure the funding needed to make a full-length production...but instead of settling for a good short film, his perseverance paved the way for a great final product that's every bit as punishing, inspiring, intense, brutal, and invigorating as you've heard during the last few months. The point is: if you're a little late to the concert (like me), there are still plenty of seats left.

Luckily, Whiplash avoids most of the traps that most "music prodigy meets tough instructor" stories fall into. Things don't look that way at first: young Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a first-year student at New York's respected Shaffer Conservatory, and his first encounter with brutish studio conductor Terence Fletcher (Simmons) doesn't exactly go very well. Their relationship lurches between better and worse from there on out: Fletcher's unorthodox style of leadership is not unlike R. Lee Ermey's fearsome, memorable Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: it's the stuff of nightmares, and almost laughable if you treat Whiplash as a literal interpretation of the typical music teacher/student experience. From one perspective, it doesn't matter: Fletcher's career at Shaffer has produced excellent results, countless awards, and the respect of his peers and pupils. On the other hand, he's an emotionally abusive sociopath who may or may not be directly responsible for the death of another promising student several years ago.

More often than not, Whiplash toes the line between captivating and cartoonish extremely well, revealing two distinct characters who, in one way or another, are all the better for finally butting heads. Music majors and experienced drummers will probably find something to scoff at, and most anyone who ever played in a school band will most likely dig up quasi-painful memories of a like-minded---but much tamer---instructor from their formative years, myself included. But whatever your personal background, interests, or level of music ability, Whiplash serves up more than enough tension to keep viewers enthralled during the entire performance. Sony's Blu-ray package follows suit with a pitch-perfect A/V presentation and a collection of thoughtful, entertaining bonus features.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Sony's got a solid track record with new and catalog Blu-rays, so it's not surprising that Whiplash looks striking in 1080p. Presented in its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio, there's a fantastic amount of image detail on this transfer (especially in close-ups of Fletcher staring into your soul, up top)...and though "teal and orange" palettes usually rub me the wrong way, Whiplash leans more towards a heavy amber and greenish-blue mixture that helps to distinguish it a little. There are a lot of subtle shifts between medium grey, deep grey, and true black during many scenes here, so it's also good to know that the shadow details and contrast hold their own weight. Flagrant digital imperfections (edge enhancement, excessive DNR, compression artifacts) were largely absent, rounding out the visual presentation nicely. This is a very textured, detail-rich film and Sony's Blu-ray presents it in near-perfect fashion.

NOTE: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-ray's native 1080p resolution.

Whiplash is most certainly a dialogue-driven film, but this DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix (also available in lossless French and Spanish dubs) absolutely crackles with sonic detail in all the right places. Not surprisingly, the "live" music performances benefit the most from this presentation, as subtle panning effects and precise placement really put viewers in the middle of the action. Unexpected moments sound as amplified as they need to be, while a rich and satisfying amount of low end is occasionally present to pile on additional layers of weight. Dialogue, not surprisingly, is typically anchored up front, while subtle (or not so subtle) moments of background ambiance and composer Justin Hurwitz's score get the lion's share of surround placement. Overall, this is an immensely satisfying and powerful mix that probably sounds better than the art house theater where you saw Whiplash originally. Optional English, SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are included during the main feature and most of the supplements.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

The basic interface includes separate options for playback, chapter selection, audio setup and bonus features, with quick loading time and minimal pre-menu distractions. This one-disc package arrives in a standard keepcase and includes text-heavy cover artwork; no inserts or slipcovers are included, and a few extras aren't listed on the back.

Bonus Features

There's a decent assortment of extra content on this Blu-ray, and most of it is high quality. The main attraction is a feature-length Audio Commentary with writer/director Damien Chazelle and actor J.K. Simmons, who maintain a nice balance between technical details and entertaining, off-the-cuff production memories. Not surprisingly, Simmons does not work "in character"; he's more than willing to joke around and poke fun at himself on occasion. Chazelle, on the other hand, mostly plays it straight and offers plenty of info about the film's inception, production, execution, and the impact after its release. It's a shame that actor Miles Teller or composer Justin Hurwitz couldn't make it a trio (or quartet), but die-hard fans will thoroughly enjoy this track from start to finish.

The eponymous Original Short Film (18 minutes) is also here; written and directed by Chazelle in 2013 and also featuring J.K. Simmons, this is more of a rough segment from the 2014 film and not a condensed version of its entire story. Originally planned as a feature film, Chazelle was unable to secure funding and submitted it to Sundance instead (2014 was a better year for him). If you'd like to dig deeper, this short is also available with commentary by Chazelle, producers Couper Samuelson, Helen Estabrook, and Nick Britell; as well as editor Tom Cross. On a related note, we also get one Deleted Scene ("Fletcher at Home", 1:30) from the main feature.

A few more odds and ends round out the package, beginning with the side-stepping but thematically appropriate "Timekeepers" (42:59), a featurette about real-life drummers---Chad Smith of the Chili Peppers, Doane Perry of Deep Purple, Gina Shock of the Go-Go's, Kate Schellenbach of Luscious Jackson, Roy McCurdy oF Blood Sweat and Tears, composer Cliff Martinez, and more---and their recollections of early drumming exposure, memorable and/or harsh instructors, styles and influences, career paths, and much more. It's aimed more at musicians than movie fans---unless you're both, of course---but still accessible for anyone who just enjoyed Whiplash. A very short Interview with Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, and Damien Chazelle (7:52) is also here; recorded at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2014 and moderated by programming director Kerri Craddock, it's enjoyable but all-too-brief. Last but not least is the rigid Theatrical Trailer (2:10), also presented in 1080p.

Final Thoughts

A former band instructor of mine always reminded us that "practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect." Though Whiplash doesn't necessarily reach perfection during portions of its 106-minute lifespan, it offers more than enough suspense to captivate new audiences...and the layered, memorable performances that keep us coming back for multiple viewings. This intense character study shows us two sides of the same coin: one's a talented young student who's willing to sacrifice everything for greatness, and the other is a brutal control freak who wants to bring a legend or two into the world. Their shared scenes are some of the year's best, whether the volume is loud or soft. Sony's Blu-ray presents Whiplash in its best possible light: the A/V presentation is top-notch, the bonus features are excellent, and everything gels together just about perfectly. Very Highly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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