Genre: Drama, Music
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser
Whiplash begins with a drumroll. A steady tap-tap-tap on a snare drum that gradually builds and builds, until it finally reaches a mighty crescendo that leaves your heart pumping and ears ringing. It’s an electric opening that strikes like a bolt of lightening, rooting you to the edge of your seat for the duration.
Andrew (Miles Teller) is the aspiring musician who is performing said drumroll. He’s a student at the fictitious Shaffer Conservatory in New York, which houses the best studio Jazz band in the country. Soon enough Andrew’s talents have caught the eye of the band’s infamous conductor Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), a man who rules over his players with an iron fist in the hopes 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 at his head, while on stage, in frustration at the mistakes Parker was making. Drawing from his own experiences as an aspiring drummer, writer/director Damien 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.
Despite his novice filmmaking status, Chazelle proves himself to be a young master of his craft. He composes his story like a thriller, constructing a barnstorming battle of wits between a modern-day David and Goliath. It’s a raw, rough conflict infused with an animalistic atmosphere that’s rife with testosterone. The mounting tension it creates is beyond palpable. As the stakes get higher, you soon find yourself writhing in both anxiety and anticipation. Palms become so clammy they can no longer grip the seat’s arms, fingernails are likely to have all but disappeared.
From the front, Chazelle conducts his own cinematic orchestra with ear-shattering authority. Pulsing to a breathless beat from the first stanza to its last, Whiplash is a symphony of passion and obsession. Thematically, it draws very much on the same ideas so splendidly explored by Darren Aronofsky in Black Swan. But while that blurred the lines between reality and fantasy, this is very much a film that strives, and succeeds, in maintaining a high level of authenticity.
Much of its emotional energy is derived from the two awards-worthy central performances. In the role of Fletcher, Simmons delivers what is arguably the finest performance thus far in a prolific but understated career. He bursts into rooms with the air and authority of an army drill sergeant, commandingly intimidating all who are in his presence. He’s a man who can shatter a person’s hopes and 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 his students 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 Simmons’ performance that understandably lingers most in the memory, but this is still a story of two parts. Andrew is Chazelle’s true focus, and in the role Miles Teller is finally given the opportunity to ignite on the screen. Initially he channels the same nice guy image we’ve come to know him for in the likes of The Spectacular Now and That Awkward Moment. But as Fletcher’s shadow begins to fall over him, Teller subtly develops into someone far more monstrous, as Andrew’s thirst for success begins to mirror Fletcher’s own. Confidence soon paves the way to arrogance, and Andrew becomes possessed by the need to prove he’s one of the future greats. He even expends a newfound relationship with local college student Nicole (Melissa Benoist, sweet and sensitive) 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 completely compelling whole. He augments the dark psychological recesses of the script with a devilishly comic tone. Fletcher’s persistent put-downs are brutally brilliant and uncomfortably funny tongue-lashings. “You are a worthless, friendless, faggot-lipped little piece of shit whose mommy left daddy when she figured out he wasn’t Eugene O’Neill and who’s now weeping and slobbering all over my drum set like a fucking nine-year-old girl” he says to Andrew during one of their early encounters; it’s hard not to laugh and shudder simultaneously.
Perhaps the film’s most note-worthy achievement though, is that it was shot in an almost unbelievable 19 days. As it is from every other standpoint, Whiplash is a tremendous technical achievement too. Throughout, DP Sharone Meir’s camera jumps around each scene to the beat of Justin Hurwitz’s sensational soundtrack, engaging with the characters and their art form to deliver an utterly enthralling musical spectacle. The standout sequence is, without doubt, the finale. It’s an astounding, head-banging encore that roars louder than anything else. When the climax does finally come, it’s all you can do not to jump out of your seat to scream, applaud, and punch the air in triumph.
Given its meagre budget and indie roots, Whiplash enters the ring as an underdog, but it leaves it a champion. The battle to be the best film of 2015 starts, and quite possibly ends right here!