While clapping is traditionally known as an American response to a great piece of film-making (or indeed a smooth plane landing), the spectacular finale of Whiplash is capable of making even the most-reserved British cinema audiences forget their typical sensibilities and erupt into applause. Nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Damien Chazelle’s jazz drumming drama is no singalong affair, but expect the deep and infectious grooves to draw you into a slight head nod, or at the very least some foot-tapping to the beat.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a student at the fictional Schaffer Conservatory, the most prestigious music school in the United States, and is driven towards a single goal: to join the legendary ranks of the world’s greatest jazz artists. Whiplash sets the tone of furious intensity straight off the bat, with the titles giving way to a snare roll that builds and accelerates as Andrew practices his craft, sitting in a dimly-lit practice room and sweating over the kit.
Enter Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) – leader and conductor of Schaffer’s top performance outfit, the revered “Studio Band”. Fletcher is looking for players and Andrew has caught his attention. From the very first scene, the riveting dynamic between keen student and omniscient teacher is established. In order to fully realise the potential of his ambitious cohort of young musicians, Fletcher pushes the boundaries of musical precision and human emotional endurance. In Andrew’s first session with the Studio Band, Fletcher leads a brutal and psychological witch hunt for an out of tune player within his horn section, cementing him as an unforgiving, unrelenting and unstoppable taskmaster.
The plot continues with Andrew fighting to earn and maintain his place in the highly competitive ensemble, pushing himself harder and harder until the drum skins are pierced and his hands are dripping with blood. Whiplash masterfully addresses the art of jazz drumming and treads a careful line that allows those who have never before held a stick to become fully immersed in the world of tempo and rudiments. In the same style, you don’t have to be a jazz aficionado to enjoy the subject matter at hand, no more than you need to be a boxer to enjoy Rocky. However, knowing the definitions of “rushing” (playing slightly too fast, ahead of the beat) and “dragging” (playing slightly too slowly, behind the beat) may save you a some confusion in early scenes.
Andrew’s total commitment to becoming world-class drummer, including self-imposed loneliness and fierce defence of this reclusive behaviour to friends and family, is portrayed with a dark strength by Miles Teller. Trained as a rock drummer in his teens, Teller was taught advanced jazz drumming techniques for the role and film editor Tom Cross estimates that most of the playing in the final cut is provided by the actor himself. However, this impressive display from Teller is dwarfed by a career performance from J. K. Simmons. The fury and ferociousness of Terrence Fletcher is flawlessly acted by Simmons, creating a movie villain that’s as memorable as he is merciless; his bullying ranging between screamed one-liners suitable for a US Marine bootcamp, through to cutting and deeply personal remarks about family members of his players. Although Fletcher is not all high volume tirades and smashing musical equipment, and Simmons’ humanisation of his character in more tender scenes helps to round the tyrannical director into a more complex and full-bodied anti-hero of sorts. While competition is stiff for this year’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar (particularly from Edward Norton in Birdman, and Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher), it is hard to imagine how the award could go to anyone but J. K. Simmons for this tour-de-force.
Whiplash’s nomination in the Best Film Editing category is also particularly deserved, the film’s editor Tom Cross helping Damien Chazelle to transform the band’s practices and performances into beautifully tight and stunningly gripping scenes. Cuts are often timed with the playing track, bouncing precisely between trombone slides, saxophone reeds, trumpet ends, the musician’s sheet music, and of course the drums. A very similar style is tastefully used whenever the band forms for practice in their rehearsal space, with snappy shots of music stands unfolding, and instruments being assembled and tuned. Combining this editing with the cinematography’s golden glow on the performance scenes, and juxtaposed with Chazelle’s sweeping shots across the band sections and the drummer, and the result is jazz music being made as exciting as any fast-paced action movie car chase.
Tremendous performances, flawless direction and wonderful music merge to form an invigorating film that tackles the big questions lining the road to greatness. Do triumphant ends justify brutal means? Is there “a line” when striving for true excellence? Is burning out in brilliance better than fading away in mediocrity? While Whiplash does not answer directly or definitively, this masterpiece offers much food for thought as well as a sublimely paced thrill ride through the world of jazz music. If Whiplash was a concert performance, you’d give it a standing ovation – Damien Chazelle (Teller and Simmons too for that matter), take a bow!
* * * *
5 / 5 stars
Written by James Excell