Whiplash is, appropriately, an escalating drumroll of a movie. Starting slowly, picking up the tempo and building drama to a final act where the tension explodes and this drum metaphor stops making sense.
Jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is studying at Shaffer Conservatory, a prestigious music school in New York. He attracts the attention of conductor Terence Fletcher (J K Simmons) and is recruited as an alternate in his band. Andrew quickly discovers that Fletcher is a master manipulator, keeping his band under a reign of terror. Whiplash follows Andrew as he engages in a battle of wills with his tyrannical music teacher.
Whiplash’s pace is relentless. Previously, Damien Chazelle directed one little seen indie film (Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench) and has a handful of writer credits to his name, but here he demonstrates a talent and intensity that marks him out as one to watch. His film is gorgeous to look at (the lighting is particularly brilliant) and Chazelle’s history as a Jazz drummer makes this film personal but never rose-tinted; the direction is sharp as a tack with a script to match.
The film’s story might seem too specific for an audience uninterested in drumming to connect with, but it’s more relatable than first impressions would suggest. The ruminations on the cost of greatness might not speak to us all, but the psychological effects of bullying certainly will. Whether it was a fellow student at school, a vindictive teacher, a coach, a colleague, a crappy boss or music tutor, the vast majority of us have felt victimised by someone at some point in our lives, and how you cope with that forms part of the film’s backbone.
The tension between the two leads is sensational. The movie delves into their relationship far better than I can summarise, here but essentially neither one of them is wholly good or bad. There are elements of sadomasochism in their relationship, which are more believable than anything in Fifty Shades Of Grey. Fletcher seems to revel in torturing his students with ever more vicious jibes, but equally, there are times where Andrew seems to enjoy Fletcher’s attention, be it good or bad.
J K Simmons is being tipped to take home the Best Supporting Actor Oscar he’s been nominated for, in addition to other awards. These plaudits are fully deserved; the ferocity of his performance is breathtaking, shaking off any memory of Mac MacGuff in Juno. Despite his all-out nastiness, you never stop wanting to watch Fletcher; Simmons is a magnetic screen presence whether you’re laughing at his put downs or recoiling from his venom.
Miles Teller has, arguably, the more difficult role, as Andrew’s character fluctuates from shy and retiring, confident and cocky to browbeaten ghost of his former self. Teller plays Andrew’s passion with an almost religious fervour, complete with drum-based self flagellation. Displaying his own musical talent (Teller plays much of the film’s music himself) his depiction of young talent is not exactly likeable, but totally compelling.
While Whiplash is essentially a two hander, the secondary relationships aren’t just there for padding. Andrew’s Father Jim (Paul Reiser) is the polar opposite to Fletcher, and his combination of pride, concern and horror at what his son has become is a nice counterpoint to Andrew’s ambition. Andrew’s relationship with Melissa Benoist’s Nicole might feel unnecessary, but that’s by design. Andrew goes so quickly from being interested in Nicole to finding the relationship superfluous, which shows us how insidiously Fletcher exerts his influence, creeping into every aspect of Andrew’s life.
Whiplash’s score is a showcase of wonderful Jazz. From standards such as Hank Levy’s eponymous Whiplash to the complementary tunes in Justin Hurwitz’s original score, it’s all gorgeous. In particular Caravan (by Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington) is perfectly placed as a key element in the film’s fist-clenchingly tense finale.
To its credit, the film never takes a stance on Fletcher’s teaching methods. Thought is given to the students who suffer under Fletcher’s tutelage, but you can’t deny he gets results as his band win trophies and Andrew starts to realise his potential. Talent thrives in a variety of circumstances, and there’s plenty of it on display in Whiplash.
In the current cinematic climate, Whiplash feels like a shot of adrenaline, boasting two knockout performances and drama pulled as tight as a drum skin. Much like its portrayal of forging genius, Whiplash is exhausting but absolutely stunning.
Whiplash is out in UK cinemas now.
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