Whiplash is for anyone who has ever wanted to become really good at something. Whiplash is for anyone who has ever wanted someone else to strive for more. Whiplash is full of the passionate intensity, raging with insanity, held together in director Damien Chazelle’s vice-like grip, pulling off a taut tension, mean and thick.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a 19 year old drummer at Shaffer Conservatory, the greatest music school in the US. Whilst in the practice room, he is spotted by Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) and despite a seemingly disapproving demeanour towards Neiman’s ability, he promotes the youngster to an alternate on his primary, prestigious band. Abusive, harsh and cruel, Fletcher invites an environment of fear into his students, with Neiman determined to receive the approval of this tyrannic genius regardless of the cost.
The veins in the temples of JK Simmons become a character in their own right. Simmons uses great dexterity to take on such controlled aggression, neither villain nor redeemable but something in his own rite. An angry god, a mastermind, a serpent. The rhythms and tempos of jazz music become sentient, exuding tension and splendour, aided by some incredibly tight editing which amplifies each vibration. Taking its title from one of Fletcher’s trademark pieces, the strive to play it perfectly is considered the utmost virtue by this teacher. The film grapples brilliantly with the teacher’s demand for the highest standards from his students and the consequences of pushing that step further. Neiman is bullied and demeaned and Miles Teller conveys a brutal determination to make his obsession and insanity so human and compassionate. Its hard to recall characters quite like Fletcher and Neiman, both men distinctive and fanatical creations.
It’s frightening to think Chazelle made this film in his late 20s, with his previous film about a jazz trumpeter and his upcoming project revolving around a jazz pianist, in case there were any doubts that he understands what it means to be obsessed by jazz.
Whiplash is about obsession as much as it’s about jazz, or drumming. It’s an unpredictable drama centring around the cost of greatness and whether that greatness should be discovered regardless of emotional cost. Its drive and determination are matched perfectly by its focussed direction, exploring its ideas with utter, unflinching concentration, which is what makes Whiplash such a commanding accomplishment.
Review by David Rank
Whiplash is out on 7th January in the UK. Running time 107 mins. Certificate 15 (UK).