Whiplash (London Film Festival 2014) Review
Blood on the drum tracks: Whiplash sets a stunning tempo for films about obsession, sacrifice, and the vicious streak required for chasing down life goals. Already with a reputation from Sundance as a toe-tapping crowdpleaser, director Damien Chazelle fashions a script with an enriching, vibrant pulse that is, for obvious reasons, kept alive with the constant presence of drumming. But in the lead role of Andrew Neyman, it’s clear Miles Teller has more of the sympathetic, hidden darkness that could be glimpsed in The Spectacular Now, and fashions something rather quite spectacular.One recurring image is of 19-year-old Andrew practising on his kit. Get used to it. One of my favourite pieces of advice comes from famed workaholic David Fincher, who claimed he’s always exhausted and takes comfort from knowing his body is fully exerted. Andrew has elements of Fincher’s perfectionism in his daily routine, although that drive comes from menacing outsider figure Terence Fletcher, played to psychopathic perfection by J.K. Simmons. When Andrew makes it to a prodigious music school, his jazz ensemble is taught by Terence, the culmination of every frightening PE staff member with the added savage wordplay of Malcolm Tucker. Simmons chucks a chair at Andrew’s face before repeatedly slapping his face – a memorable first day at school that leads to nightmares, but also a few extra hours’ practice before bedtime.The two-hander forms a battle of wits that, while not entirely breaking new ground, is entirely riveting for the darker areas visited by the script. When Terence learns of a former student’s suicide and sheds a tear – perhaps the only sign of humanity – the startling twist is that the death was a suicide possibly stemming from the stress of being taught jazz standards by a violent maniac with bulging eyes. Perhaps the masterstroke of Whiplash is how Simmons’ towering performance overshadows everything else in Andrew’s life. There’s his protective, chummy father (Paul Reiser), and a girlfriend (Melissa Beonoist) who is swiftly demoted below band practice in terms of priorities. Sure, they’re both charming, friendly people, but it’s Terence that haunts Andrew’s every thought, whether tapping his fingers on the bus, or running through swing rhythms until his palms bleed.I foresee Whiplash picking up praise for what might possibly be the wrong reason – like Inside Llewyn Davis, Chazelle’s script is a comfort blanket for creative types with too many excuses for why the big break hasn’t arrived. With Llewyn Davis, it was critics. Now Whiplash proposes all that separates our artistic superstardom is our social lives or reluctance to physically damage our bodies. I suspect there’s an out-of-tune note in how the film massages our hidden egos, but the effect is undeniable – and now I’m going to spend the night writing until there’s blood on the keyboards. ’Whiplash’ is part of London Film Festival 2014 as part of the Accenture Gala. More information can be found here.