It would be difficult to write any piece about Whiplash without the word ‘intense’ (or a synonym substitute for it) popping up at some point in your vocabulary. Emotionally intense, provocative, exhilarating and electrifying are just a few of the adjectives plastered all over the film’s poster, and it’s hard to argue with any of these fine ways of describing this thrilling movie.
In some ways it is a very simple film; in others a multi-layered and complicated one. Just when you think it belongs to one category, it surprises you with the other. This tonal juxtaposition is appropriate considering the way it deals with its subject matter – jazz is, after all, known as a typically mellow, chilled form of music, yet the manner in which it is treated here is anything but.
Yes, as you can guess, Whiplash has an immensely accomplished soundtrack; you’ll especially think so if you particularly enjoy this genre of music, or are a musician yourself. Though this story has appeal to any artist, not just the musical one. Would you be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to be ‘one of the greats’? How far must we push ourselves to reach our full potential? How far is too far to push someone else to reach this potential? Such questions lie at the heart of Whiplash, and it tackles its themes not just brutally and unapologetically, but with an alarming authority that belies its small-scale independent status.
Clearly it owes a fair portion of this integrity to the forceful performance of J.K. Simmons in the role of feared and respected music teacher Terence Fletcher. He is domineering and intimidating, commanding the screen with his presence each time he appears on it, yet there are deeper elements to his character that are subtly hinted at and delved into over the course of the film. Much like the film as a whole, Fletcher manages to consistently surprise his audience just when you think you have him worked out.
Simmons’ performance is complemented by a wonderful lead act from Miles Teller, who plays Andrew Neiman. Neiman is an ambitious, talented young drummer who has the drive to be a great musician like Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker. This drive is harnessed by Fletcher, the head music tutor at his school, who first spots Neiman’s potential talent and accepts him into his own prestigious class. What starts out as a dream scenario for Andrew, soon turns into more of a personal nightmare as Fletcher’s somewhat erratic and verbally abusive teaching style emerges over the course of his first class. Rather than let this discourage him, however, Andrew continually attempts (literally through blood, sweat and tears) to rise to Fletcher’s seemingly impossible standards, and the two develop a shaky respect for each other.
Added into the mix are sub-plots regarding Andrew’s personal relationships, one with his father (a failed writer whose wife left him some years ago; experiences that have helped turn him into a pessimist) and one with a girl whom he meets at his local cinema. Naturally these relationships suffer in different ways as Andrew becomes more obsessed with his drumming, and the question of whether they really need to in order to achieve greatness is one of this movie’s main themes.
Director Damien Chazelle, whose only previous credit was the quirky jazz musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), shows an extreme confidence in his direction that matches the highly energized performances of his leading actors. Perhaps this is not so surprising, as Chazelle also wrote the screenplay for this film, and it was inspired partly by his own experience as a budding musician. Whiplash feels very much like his baby, and in time it may well turn out to be his masterpiece.
I realize that’s a word I also threw around recently in relation to Foxcatcher, and make no mistake: it’s not one I like to use lightly. Whiplash is a very different film to Bennett Miller’s slow, brooding drama – indeed it feels almost its opposite – though the two are equally essential viewing.
In fact, to use the term ‘equal’ is not entirely honest of me. The truth is there remains little doubt in my mind that Whiplash just may be a notch above anything else I’ve seen in the run-up to this year’s awards season. And the whole irony of this is that it is a year old itself (the film first debuted at Sundance in January 2014). This represents one of the main reasons I don’t like end of year top 10s. To have done a list for 2014 without Whiplash occupying one of the top spots on it, would be an injustice for a film to which only one remaining adjective can truly do justice: special.
10 / 10