By the time it screened at the London Film Festival, Whiplash was already one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year. The reviews from Sundance, where it won both the Jury and Audience prizes, were overwhelmingly positive, with 4 or 5 stars being pretty much guaranteed with each individual critique. Happily, I can say that Whiplash deserves all of these plaudits, and it received a standing ovation in London. It’s one of the most exciting, entertaining and well-edited films of 2014, with an excellent script brought to life by mesmerising performances from Miles Teller and JK Simmons. I have not yet seen enough of the big awards films (Birdman, Inherent Vice, Imitation Game etc) to proclaim any film my best of 2014, but Whiplash is most definitely a front-runner.
Loosely based on the life of the film’s writer and director Damien Chazelle, Whiplash focuses on Andrew Nyman (Teller), an ambitious but self-destructive jazz drumming prodigy at one of the best music schools in the US. He is discovered by the revered conductor of the school’s jazz orchestra, Terence Fletcher (Simmons), who invites him to sit in on rehearsals, before eventually allowing him the core drumming spot. Initially a dream come true for Andrew, the whole affair spirals out of control as his desire to be one of the greats clashes with the highly abusive nature of Fletcher’s mentoring.
This abuse manifests itself through startling physical violence as well as verbal and emotional battery. In a manner reminiscent of R. Lee Ermy’s drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket, these insults, despite being highly personal and cruel, elicit genuine laughter from the audience, being equal parts witty and rage-fuelled. It helps that Simmons is such a towering figure on the screen; utterly dominating every scene he’s in, even when he’s sharing it with Teller, who is, alongside Jack O’Connell, one of the best young actors working at the moment. Alone, both Simmons and Teller are electric, but together they are absolutely captivating.
Refreshingly, and unlike other films which focus so centrally on lead performances, Chazelle is not content with letting his performers do all the work. Edited with the pace of a thriller and with a story that escalates its stakes both believably and satisfyingly, Whiplash is far more exciting than a film with this subject matter has any right to be. The film-making here is incredibly bold, especially given how new to the business Chazelle is, and that is never more clear than in the breathless finale, an almost wordless emotional climax which has the bravura to include a full 10 minutes of nothing but jazz musicianship and facial expressions whilst simultaneously not feeling gratuitous or lazy.
The portrayal of the musicianship itself is also one of the film’s great strengths. This is not a film where the ‘good guy’ musician is gifted but lazy, whilst his hard-working rival seethes bitterly, but one which understands, most likely thanks to Chazelle’s grounding in drumming, how much practice and effort goes in to being talented. This discipline extends past Andrew’s physical training, as he finds himself increasingly cut off from everyone except his father, leaving behind his extended family, his girlfriend and any friends he may have made at school, as he can afford no distractions.
Going in to Whiplash, I knew to expect emotional harm, but the depiction of physical pain, inflicted on Andrew by both Fletcher and himself, came as a shock. This motif, most visually striking when Andrew has to cool his bloodied hands in a pristine jug of iced water, is supported by the repeated story of jazz legend Charlie Parker, who performed badly enough in a rehearsal to warrant his band leader to throw a cymbal on the ground and force him out, only for Parker to practice for months on end and become one of the greatest musicians of the century. Fittingly, Fletcher alters this story to Parker having the cymbal thrown at his head, in keeping with Fletcher’s particularly vicious teaching style.
Despite his obvious character flaws, it is hard to describe Fletcher as an out and out antagonist. He does what he does to achieve not just greatness, but something damn near perfection, and, come the finale, he and Andrew finally find each other’s tempo, as Andrew performs a stunning solo. It is in these grey areas of character, fleshed out by wonderful performances, and displays of raw physicality that Whiplash really comes into its own as a uniquely brilliant film, and one that will be tough to beat come Oscar season.
Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring; Miles Teller, JK Simmons
Run Time: 107 minutes
Whiplash is scheduled for a UK release on January 16th 2015