Dir: Damien Chazelle (2014)
This magnificent musical thriller throws the sheets away and trounces every pupil/mentor film ever made as a hopeful but shy jazz drummer faces off with his brutal conductor. Miles Teller puts his partying teen roles well and truly behind him as Andrew, plucked from the practice room by the revelatory JK Simmons’ maestro Fletcher; More a punishing and unforgiving drill sergeant than a teacher, Fletcher grinds his students down, believing that greatness comes, like it did to Charlie Parker, from having a drum kit thrown at your head. Chazelle has already shown a knack for musical thrill rides after penning last years ludicrous but fun Grand Piano. But this is more than a bit of DePalma-esque pop corn fun; It’s a nerve shredding masterpiece, a dual character study which plays like Rocky on drums.
Pitching the idea of a film about a drummer as a thriller or even a horror seems ridiculous in many ways but some how Whiplash succeeds in Chazelle’s idea of fear as the driving force to be great. The relationship between Fletcher and Andrew is based more in the psychology of wrestling or war than the practice of music; Andrew’s drive is exploited and manipulated savagely by the fearsome “teacher” pitting students against each other as they hopelessly scramble for the love and praise of an abusive father figure. There’s not a shred of Dead Poets Society to be found here, in fact far more of Stanley Kubrick‘s infamous Full Metal Jacket bootcamp.
Andrew’s own quiet father (Paul Reiser) and his family seem distant to his career choice; Perhaps this accounts for his awkwardness and doubt. He pursues the affections of Melissa Benoist only spurred on by the thrill of being praised by Fletcher behind the skins. His decisions and mood seemed to be shaped by his performances. Chazelle’s semi autobiographical script allows for little down time or contemplation, playing like a feature-length drum solo, beaten smashed to perfection, bleeding and drenched in Sweat; Andrew has little time in his life for anything else and neither does the films 28-year-old director.
The sheer, lean, frantic pace of Whiplash (as the name suggests) is jaw dropping; Shot in only 19 days, the delirious editing and camera work is matched blow for blow by Simmons and Teller’s extraordinary performances. It’s quite staggering to understand just how Chazelle has wrung so much out of the world of competitive playing; A topic not exactly reeking of adrenaline. Just as the film boils over to an incredible final gig, Chazelle pulls the rug out from under our feet and drops us down a few pegs. It’s a brilliant move, like a slap in the face from Fletcher himself but it’s only so he can build us up again to an astounding finale; A master of the off beat.
Whiplash is a triumph. Simmons is a shoo-in from the best supporting actor Oscar in March with a villain so perfectly played and easy to loathe. It’s a terrifying role; But one that would be nothing without the incredible Teller whose knack with Andrew’s wounded determination and a kind of beautiful charming awkwardness makes the tyranical Fletcher all the more despicable. Completely brilliant and already our favourite film of the year.