Director: Damien Chazelle
Major Players: Miles Teller, J K Simmons
Out Of Five: 5
What is it about music teachers? The most feared teacher in my school was the music teacher. A small, fiery woman, we were all running scared of her. Getting it wrong wasn’t an option, unless you wanted to be destroyed in front of the class. Yet, her praise was so hard to get that, when you got it, you glowed inside. Now she has a kindred spirit, in the shape of a muscular, bald man dressed entirely in black and whose mouth is full of inventive invective.
This is Whiplash. Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is an ambitious jazz drummer at an exclusive music conservatoire. He’s convinced he has the talent to make it big and he’s spotted by the most idiosyncratic of the teachers, Terence Fletcher (J K Simmons), who stops at nothing – literally – to get the best out of his students. He also leads the school’s top jazz band and Neyman earns his place there. But that’s just the start, as Fletcher’s pressure for perfection never lets up and nor does the pressure Neyman puts on himself ……
You can hear the similarities – both won’t settle for anything less than perfection. Neyman in his drumming – he literally sweats and bleeds over the drum kit, the sticking plaster flies, the blood splashes and the cymbals are covered with a sheen of sweat. And Fletcher in his quest to find the next big thing in jazz. He tells the story of how Charlie Parker’s tutor threw a cymbal at his head, nearly de-capitating him, when his performance wasn’t up to standard. But it was what turned Parker into Bird. Actually, he’s adapted the story for his own means, but he also tries to emulate it by hurling at chair at Neyman for not keeping time during his first session with the band. Not that he singles out Neyman for special treatment – he’s equally abusive of everybody and anybody in the band, physically, verbally or both. And he’s contemptuous of the other classes too: early on he walks into a junior class, looks at the music they’re playing and mutters “cute” in pure scorn.
The film moves at a whipcracking speed, never missing a beat. Its shooting schedule was similarly brisk – just 19 days – and there’s not a wasted moment, nay second, in this lean, adrenaline pumped drama that’s the closest you’ll get to a legal high on the big screen. And, if you’re anything like me, you’ll feel like you’re flying when you leave the cinema.
If the film moves at breakneck speed, then so does the camera work, flitting from one shot to another, sometimes with the rhythm of a metronome. But once those quick-fire shots are put together, they deliver something special, something that doesn’t just tell you the story, but embellishes it and dazzles at the same time.
Director Damien Chazelle has based Whiplash on his own experience of learning the drums, so there’s plenty of insight into the learning and teaching processes. He regards Fletcher’s methods as warped but at the same time acknowledges that the teacher completely believes in what he’s doing. Are his methods wrong? Some would say yes, and that’s why he eventually loses his job in the film. But others would say no, because they are designed to bring out the best – and only the best will survive.
Neyman’s single-mindedness makes him a difficult person to like. He’s arrogant, scornful of other people’s achievements, doesn’t really have any friends and puts his music in front of his more down to earth girlfriend. And yet we still want to see him make it, we still want him to live up to Fletcher’s standards, despite everything. Teller is great in the role, convincing behind the drums – he learnt to play them as a youngster – obsessive, self-obsessed and unsympathetic.
But it’s J K Simmons who’s getting all the attention and, while it’s the slightly showier part of the two, he absolutely nails it for all it’s worth and – just a little bit more. It’s not just a role that’s about bullying. We see moments of the more human Fletcher – the tears when a former outstanding pupil dies, meeting the young daughter of a friend – but it’s something that he keeps severely in check because it will undermine him and his methods. But when, right at the end of the film, when he gives Neyman that all-too-rare look of approval, you feel the young drummer’s glow inside. And I’m nailing my colours to the mast right now: J K Simmons for Best Supporting Actor Oscar! And more!
Whiplash is blood, sweat, tears and 100% adrenaline. And if there’s a better movie in the second half of this year at least – OK, technically it isn’t released around the UK until next year – then, whatever it is, it’s being far too modest. But somehow I don’t think there is.
Whiplash was screened at the London Film Festival on 15, 16 and 18 October and is released around the UK on Friday, 16 January 2015.