Moving at the speed of the titular injury and delivering as much of a shock, Whiplash is an exhilarating and disturbing watch.
Young Andrew Nieman is studying drumming at one of the most prestigious music schools in America. When he wins the attention of the conservatory’s legendary jazz band leader, Andrew sees his future written in the glint of the cymbals. However, as he is pushed perilously close to the limits of even the greatest musicians, Andrew must negotiate and survive the increasingly brutal professional relationship if he wants to realise his dream.
There is so much in this film to trumpet, but let’s start with the central performances. Andrew’s quietly driven loner is played by The Spectacular Now’s Miles Teller, an increasingly familiar face on our screens (particularly if your film-going diet includes young adult dystopia such as Divergent). Far more than just a cute kid with chutzpah, Teller’s dramatic maturity is evident when Andrew is promoted to lead drummer and allows himself a split second glimmer of delight which is swiftly quelled.
As his volatile foil, long-timer J. K. Simmons – a 30-year screen veteran you’ve seen so often you won’t be able to name a single part – finally gets a shot at an Oscar playing Terence Fletcher, the mercurial conductor who demands excellence from his players, but who employs militaristic tactics to achieve it. Fletcher epitomises the domestic abuser who oscillates between avuncular (“Don’t worry about what the other guys are thinking – just relax and enjoy it”) and bullying (“Are you one of these single tear people??” he snarls at a demolished Andrew who has failed to keep in time). Fletcher’s insults find their mark whether the recipient is fat, gay, female – whatever it takes to reduce his students (a preppy bunch of talented players whose eyes are instantly downcast as he storms into a room) to putty in his fist-clenched hands.
Then there’s the jazz. The sensational soundtrack is tightly played and crisply edited, rendering every performance virtually ecstatic. Teller (already a rock drummer who took a few jazz lessons to make this film) is superb as he plays so hard his hands bleed. If some scenes employ a stand-in, it’s impossible to discern.
Written and directed by a bright young filmmaker named Damien Chazelle (when the kids born in the year of Back to the Future start making movies, you know you’re old), the Making Of story is an object lesson in the pay-off of persistence (not by chance, the same moral of the on-screen story).
Chazelle had one small feature under his belt when he tried to make Whiplash but was unable to get funding. So he simply made it as a short film (casting Simmons in the same role) and submitted it to the Sundance Film Festival, where it won an award as well as the director’s due acknowledgement. Chazelle got his money and remade his short into this stunning feature which will doubtless secure his future.