Review: Whiplash

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Image: Sony Pictures Classics
Image: Sony Pictures Classics

Had you told me a few days ago that one of the most compelling and exciting films of the past year would be about jazz drumming, I may have just laughed in your face. No offence to any jazz drummers who might be reading, but I suppose I never thought of that particular musical genre to be the source of much exhilaration. How wrong I was.

Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is the story of drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), nineteen years old and in his first year at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in New York. He is eager to get on, and desperate for the highest honour a student can achieve: a place in legendary conductor Terence Fletcher’s studio band. But Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is a difficult man to impress…

Though the film is about Andrew, this is Simmons’ film, from the moment he emerges demonically from the darkness of the music room corridor. We’ve all had those teachers who are more tyrant than tutor, but Fletcher is something else entirely – he is a sinewy ball of rage never more than barely restrained, physically and emotionally abusive towards his students and relentless in his demand for perfection from them. Whenever he enters a room grown men stand up straight, their eyes cast downwards, and the entire screening I was in visibly bristled too. He actually has some very funny lines; several spittle-drenched, obscenity-laden insults reminiscent of a less Caledonian Malcolm Tucker, but it’s hard to laugh when you’re quaking with terror.

Yet Simmons’ true genius is in his pitch perfect rendering of Fletcher’s duplicitous character. Andrew is caught in a simultaneous state of both detesting and revering his volatile conductor, and it can be difficult for us to gain a sense of who he truly is. Throughout the film he snaps back and forth between personalities – one minute he’s a sadistic bully, then the next he seems like a decent guy; in one scene he appears to demonstrate genuine empathy, then five minutes later it’s evident he may just be pure evil. Previously known as ‘that guy from that thing’, after a string of very accomplished supporting roles in various perfectly respectable movies, this is The Role for Simmons, the one he will surely be remembered for. The smart money’s on him to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and quite rightly so.

But Miles Teller should by no means be forgotten either. There’s a reason for his place on so many ‘Breakout Stars of 2014’ lists – he’s a thoroughly endearing screen presence, and has mostly starred in comedies in the past but I hope he has a very long career ahead of him, full of roles just as dramatic and complex as in Whiplash. For his character flits back and forth between personalities too; at times he is slightly socially awkward but charming nonetheless, elsewhere he is stroppy, selfish and desperate for praise. His is an incredibly physical performance; he is utterly frenetic in his playing scenes, pushing his body to the absolute limit until he and his kit are covered in sweat and blood.

In fact it’s one of the bloodiest non-horror films you’ll see this year, believe it or not. Fletcher’s instruction is scarcely less intense than military training, barking orders at his drummers for hours on end until their hands are barely more than bloody, blistered lumps of flesh (a shot of Andrew plunging his fist into a bucket of ice is particularly striking). But is his goal ultimately admirable? He wants to find the next Buddy Rich, the Charlie Parker of the 21st century, and that is what Andrew wants to be, after all. So does the end justify the means? Is relentless physical and mental torture and dismissing all other areas of your life worth it if it’s possible to achieve unquestionable greatness in your field?

During the performance scenes, the audience themselves can rarely be made out from the stage, but they aren’t the important ones, not really. Jazz itself isn’t even the true focus; it’s the perfection of the arrangement, the hair’s-breadth of difference between the right and wrong tempo. ‘How can you win a music competition?’ Andrew’s cousin asks him, at a particularly fraught family meal. ‘Isn’t it all subjective?’ Andrew’s reply, without missing a beat: ‘no’. I’m no musician, but I have a feeling that viewers who are will appreciate the finer details of the film. The camera swoops throughout the orchestra, with various close-ups on piano keys, bass strings, saxophone reeds; the inherent tactility and physicality of musicianship is always evident.

There’s a pivotal moment later in the film in which the narrative almost threatens to veer off into ludicrousness, but it is merely a set-up for the, quite frankly, astonishing third act. I can’t give anything away but the final extended scene portrays something that just shouldn’t feel as tense as it does, but I watched the entire thing with my hand over my mouth, unable to look away.

Rarely does a film so tightly constructed, so unrelentingly compelling come along, so we should all relish it while it’s here. Drop everything you’re doing and see it now – it might just change everything you thought about ambition, about true success. But be prepared to face the new most terrifying seven words in the English language: ‘were you rushing, or were you dragging?’

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