The mark of a good film soundtrack is its ability to stand alone outside the cinematic world. Listening to the work of some of the greats such as Howard Shore, John Williams or Hans Zimmer will confirm this; even Tarantino's compiled soundtracks sound like a hipsters playlist when taken outside their narrative.
So when it was announced that Grammy-nominated soundtrack to the Academy Award-winning film Whiplash would be re-released on heavyweight vinyl, the audio experience for this suburb musical work just got better. The soundtrack composed by Justin Hurwitz (score and big band songs) and Tim Simonec (original jazz songs) also features classic jazz standards by Stan Getz and Duke Ellington amongst others.
The film centres around a young jazz drummer, Andrew and his sadistic music teacher. Fletcher. The music reflects this and is just as dynamic, controlled, dramatic, aggressive, tortured and down-heartened as the characters and plot in the movie. Take The Overture (Hurwitz) for example it's a piece played with abandon, beautifully scored but feels improvised in places. It's a hugely atmospheric opener with frenetic changes in tempo, bags of syncopation and some moody un-caged brass. Fletcher's Song (Hurwitz) is a reoccurring light motif for the film and as the relationship between Fletcher and Andrew is key to the films narrative. In the sleeve notes Hurwitz comments, “the melody appears in almost every score cue, sometimes clearly stated, sometimes more hidden. It appears in major, minor, and other modes, depending on the situation.”
In the sleeve notes, Justin Hurwitz talks about the challenges of creating such a big score. “How do you score a movie that already has so much music in it? We knew it shouldn't be a big band score, since there's enough big band jazz throughout the movie. We knew an orchestral score wouldn't fit the vibe of this film...Eventually, we came up with the idea of building a score using the techniques of electronic scoring, but using 100% real instruments -- in fact, only the instruments in a big band lineup. Doing so, we would have a score that felt atmospheric like an electronic score without actually being electronic, and organic to the movies existing soundscape, without feeling like just more big band music.” Hurwitz's aim certainly paid off, take the mellow Casey's Song and the retro-sounding No Two Words, they have the freedom of an electronic score, but the ambiance of a full band sound.
“Our scoring session has to be one of the most tedious ever, as I recorded the score cues one note at a time. Literally, one note at a time. What this allowed me to do was layer and manipulate the notes in a way that musicians can't. The resulting textures are reminiscent of an electronic score, except every note was either a sax, trumpet, trombone, piano, vibe, or upright bass. The majority of the notes in this score are slowed down to about 1/3 time, creating a hellish version of a big band sound. Damien (Chazelle – the director)and I joked that it's like Miles Teller's character Andrew is being tortured by the very instruments he makes music with.”
Torture and struggle feature prominently in the film with Caravan (Ellington/Tizole) becoming a reoccurring theme for Andrew, marking his failure and success. This track, in particular, does become an instrument of torture for him, the incendiary drum solo is so turbulent, it's like his decent into madness. In contrast Upswingin' (Simonec) at the end of the album is measured, signifying Andrew's command of his instrument and of the bullying Fletcher.
Intoit (Getz) may have been written over 60 years before the films release, but it stands alongside the composition of Hurwitz and Simonec with those expressive saxophone phrases, off beat keys and flawless drumming, it's a shining example of the perfection Fletcher expects from his pupils.
As a film score Whiplash is hugely successful in terms of the atmospherics it creates on screen to enhance mood and reflect character emotion, but it is also a complex musical artwork for the jazzer to sink their teeth into.