There are topics that have a certain aura of intensity around them. Boxing for example, or heavy metal, or roller derby. Jazz, on the other hand, doesn’t usually invoke such a thing. However in Whiplash writer/director Damien Chazelle has taken jazz music and given it the force of a war film or a never ending training montage, constantly striving to get to the edge and dragging the audience along with it.
Andrew (Miles Teller) is determined to be the greatest jazz drummer of his age. In order to achieve this he has to be a part of his school’s most prestigious band, run by teacher/conductor Fletcher (J.K Simmons). However it soon becomes clear that Fletcher’s methods rely on intimidation, bullying and even physical attacks. As Andrew fights to prove his place in the band to Fletcher at the cost of friends, family and his own blood sweat and tears, his goal and the question of whether it is all worth it becomes apparent.
I haven’t had a cinema experience quite like Whiplash for some time. It is a tight, punchy, drama about obsession, passion, and the dynamic between student and a very unconventional teacher. J.K Simmons as Fletcher is like a tightly wound coil of wire, getting tighter with each passing moment and you’re just waiting for the inevitable snapping. But alongside the explosions there is also a more subtle manipulation to his actions. He initially puts Andrew at ease, learning bits about his life and then throws the details back at the boy in that first vicious rant. He emotionally tells his band the story of a promising former student cut down in his prime, which seems to inspire and shake the band members, only for us to later learn that the facts are slightly different. He is a character of cruelty, but one who has an utter conviction that true musical greatness can only come from being pushed to an extreme emotional, mental and physical edge. It is an edge that Teller’s Andrew is constantly teetering on, dripping with sweat and sleeping next to his drum kit as he tries to fulfil Fletcher’s demands.
We see the blood swirl in the jugs of ice water as he plunges his hands in, and the scene where Fletcher works the drummers into the small hours of the night until they get the tempo just right (the words “not my tempo” will haunt you) was possibly my heart-racing highlight of the film. The film also builds to a finale that is almost a battle through between the two central characters, and there is one part that I can only describe as being like a possession scene.
My only real criticism of the film is that the female character Nicole that Andrew starts dating is almost completely pointless and incidental. I see what they were doing with the character, having her as a typical early twenties drifter to be a foil to Andrew’s laser-focus on his personal goal. However in the end I think you could have removed her from the story completely and nothing would be lost, especially when there are other scenes, in particular a family dinner scene, that serve to show Andrew’s arrogance and self importance in his ambition. Some of the events of the film could also veer into implausible for some people, and if you can’t buy that anyone would stay in this instructor’s class you will have trouble getting into the movie.
Whiplash is quite a different type of music film. It is a fierce and visceral film set to a constantly building beat that will freeze you in your seat with its tension and intensity. I greatly enjoyed it and look forward to seeing what Chazelle does next, but for now this film certainly is my tempo.