“There are no two words in the English Language more harmful than ‘good job’” spews J.K. Simmons’ tyrannical band instructor towards the end of Whiplash. One can only hope such thoughts do not correspond to writer/director Damien Chazelle’s own views, or he’s going to be positively furious with this review. Pulsing to a breathless beat from the first stanza to its last, Whiplash is a symphony of passion and obsession that’s played out with two fiery performances and conducted from the front by Chazelle with ear-shattering authority.
Thunderously echoing the tempo of his forthcoming story, the writer/director opens with Miles Teller’s aspiring rocker Andrew laying down a flam that builds and builds before reaching a mighty crescendo. Andrew is a student at a fictitious music school in New York that houses the best studio Jazz band in the country. And soon enough he’s caught the attentions of Fletcher (Simmons), the band’s conductor, who rules with an iron fist in the hope of forging the next great musical prodigy.
Fletcher’s mantra is that by psychologically pummelling his students into submission with a torrent of pressure and humiliation, a new wunderkind will reveal himself. He regularly reels off the story of Charlie Parker who, so the legend goes, became the saxophonist we remember him as today because drummer Jo Jones hurled a cymbal straight at his head live on stage in frustration at the mistakes Parker was making. Drawing from his own experiences as an aspiring drummer, Chazelle proceeds to examine what effect such a constant stream of terror and torment can have on the impressionable minds who dream of being the next big thing.
In the role of Fletcher, Simmons delivers what is arguably the finest performance thus far in a prolific but understated career. He storms into rooms with the air of an army drill sergeant, a commandingly intimidating presence who can shatter a person’s hopes & dreams by just clenching his fist in the air. And if that doesn’t do the trick, he’ll come down like a tone of bricks and shower you in a deluge of viciously callous verbal abuse that packs more punch than any sort of physical attack; although don’t for one second think he won’t do that too.
It’s Andrew who’s Chazelle’s true focus though, and in the role Miles Teller is finally given the opportunity to ignite on the screen. Initially channelling the same nice guy image we’ve come to know him for in smaller roles, Teller subtly develops into someone far more monstrous as his thirst for success begins to mirror Fletcher’s own. Confidence soon paves the way to arrogance as Andrew becomes possessed by the need to prove himself to Fletcher, even expending a newfound relationship because he believes it’s too much of a distraction.
Propelled by the power of these two finely tuned performances, Chazelle pushes the bass up to breaking point, amalgamating a host of creative ideas to form one audacious and compelling whole. He augments the dark psychological recesses of the script with a devilishly comic tone. While his camera jumps around each scene to the beat of the drum, engaging with the characters and their art form, and ensuring the audience are fully immersed within it.
And just when you think you’ve seen it all, Chazelle astounds you with his finale, a head-banging encore that roars louder than anything else you’ve seen. It’s not a good job, it’s a great one!