Freelance writer. Melbourne based cinephile. Fond of food.
Published October 8th 2014
Greatness comes at a price
Director: Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
You've seen films about musicians before, but hang on to your high hats because this film about a drummer blows most of them out the water. It's virtuoso filmmaking of the highest order, intense from the opening scene. You don't have to be a lover of Jazz to be totally bowled over by Whiplash, but you might well be by the time it's finished.
Budding drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) and the mentor from hell, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons)
The story centres on Andrew (Miles Teller) a 19-year old student at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music, regarded as the best music academy in America. He's a self-motivated jazz drummer, propelling himself into gruelling one-man practice sessions every day. During one of these sessions, the school's prestigious conductor, Fletcher (J.K Simmons), spots him and recognises his talent.
This, however is no Jazz flavoured Karate Kid. Once Andrew's first rehearsal with the academy's A-team jazz combo begins, it's clear that Fletcher is the teacher from hell. Student humiliation and cruel mind games are his forte, and no tirade is too homophobic, racist or sexist in his book. He crosses the line and stays there every class. Remember the drill sergeants played by Louis Gossett Jr in An Officer and a Gentleman and R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket? They look like Mary Poppins compared to this guy. And being talented is no protection to his abuse, which Andrew soon learns. As the new guy in the band, he has to earn his place the hard way.
Andrew takes a rare break from his drums with girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist)
To this end, Andrew will do anything to prove his worth and ambition, willing to push himself through any punishment the sadistic Fletcher dishes out. In Fletcher's mind, greatness can only come when someone is stretched to the limit. According to him the most destructive words in the human language are "good job".
Andrew gets no support from the other band members. They're no better than to stick their necks out, in fear of being Fletcher's next target. There's no camaraderie in this team, just self preservation. Not that Andrew expects any different, impatience with mediocrity sits fine with him. While he clearly loves his Dad despite his complacent nature, he has little respect for the lack of ambition shown by the rest of his family or by his new girlfriend Nicole.
Like I said, this isn't Karate Kid. Don't expect your regulation Hollywood ending. Tensions steadily stretch tighter than the skins on Andrew's drum kit which is subjected (literally) to blood, sweat and tears.
Throughout it all, the Jazz standards are belted out with great gusto, the editing is crisp and the camera glides with expert precision. Just as efficiently, humour cuts sharply through the tension at regular intervals to provide an emotional release. Individual scenes will have you laughing one second and gripping your seat the next.
Likely to be the main talking point however is the pair of performances at the centre of the film. Miles Teller, who was so good in The Spectacular Now, throws himself body and soul into the role of Andrew. It's a breathtaking depiction of a single-minded, desperate desire for recognition. Teller is like a young Sean Penn and the possibilities for the career ahead of him seem limitless. J.K. Simmons as his manipulative, perfectionist mentor has delivered an indelible character, a cruel and imposing figure of monstrous proportions. He has to be the early favourite for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Whiplash is simply riveting. It grips you from start to finish, slaps you around and leaves you dazed. You won't forget it in a hurry.