I was nursing a nasty, lingering cough for almost two weeks when I caught Whiplash at a preview screening and had the bug dislodged thanks to the stress. Chazelle’s charged drama is that effective! I was completely riveted from start to finish, forgetting for 107 minutes that I was supposed to be ill.
Andrew Neiman, an extraordinarily fervent Miles Teller, is a passionate jazz drummer with skills that brought him to Shaffer, a prestigious New York music conservatory. He gets talent spotted by one of the music instructors and notorious bandleader Terence Fletcher, played by J. K. Simmons (some of you may remember him as J. Jonah Jameson, Peter Parker’s loudmouthed boss in the earlier Spider-Man trilogy with Tobey Maguire) who then recruits him into the school’s renowned studio band.
The elation is short lived. To Andrew’s horror, Fletcher turns out to be a scheming, explosive psychopath of a mentor who runs the band like your nightmare boot camp from hell. He makes Gordon Ramsay look like the patron saint of patience by comparison. Fletcher puts them through a grueling regime, practicing for hours non-stop until the delivery is pitch perfect to his ultra discerning ears and hurls demeaning expletives and heavy objects at anyone who messes up his tempo by a nanosecond!
Andrew finds himself at the receiving end of Fletcher’s wrath when he doesn’t get the beat to Hank Levy’s Whiplash, a complex piece the band rehearses frequently, quite right. Fletcher throws a chair at him, slaps him according to the tempo to prove his point and humiliates him in front of the other musicians, reducing him to tears. But Andrew aspires to become a great jazz drummer of his generation, and seems to believe that the only way to attain that dream is to survive Fletcher’s brutal but stimulating tutelage or even better, earn his much-coveted approval.
The student/ teacher trope is a highly common one in cinema but Whiplash is unlike the many typical feel-good films that seek to inspire such as Dead Poets Society (1989) and Mr Holland’s Opus (1995). Nor is the clash between student and teacher used to generate comedy like in Rushmore (1998) and Election (1999).
What sets Whiplash apart is that it’s a harrowing, almost unapologetic look at ambition and what the obsessed are willing to sacrifice and tolerate (hell, it seems!) in order to achieve this elusive artistic greatness. It’s not so much about suffering at the hands of a terrifying instructor but rather what you’re willing to put yourself through in order to feel like you’ve finally arrived.
Andrew dumps his girlfriend unceremoniously, alienates his relatives and practices until his hands bleed. He does much worse further into the film. It gets so intense at times that I was utterly convinced that Andrew was either going to keel over his drum set from a stress-induced stroke or stab Fletcher in the face. It even earned the nickname “Full Metal Drum Kit” at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival! With the tight script and Chazelle’s penchant for dark lighting and filming along shadowy corridors and alleys, Whiplash almost crosses over into noir thriller territory.
Crucial to Whiplash’s potency is, of course, Teller and Simmons, and their knockout performances. I’ve followed Teller since I first saw him in “The Hangover for teens” 21 & Over (don’t judge me!!) and I’m impressed by the range he’s displayed in the few years since then. From largely puckish roles in comedies to soulful leading man in The Spectacular Now (2013) to menacing antagonist in Divergent (2014), I’m now particularly intrigued to see his take on Mr Fantastic next in Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot out later this year. In Whiplash, he delivers a startlingly primal performance that cements his reputation as one of young Hollywood’s exciting actors.
Simmons’ convincing – pitch perfect, I would say – portrayal of a fiery, enigmatic mentor, who is the focal point of this roller coaster ride of a narrative, recently earned him a Golden Globe award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture. And it’s a richly deserved win! He’s absolutely terrifying, dredging up memories of this reviewer’s fair share of “nightmarish mentors”, which includes a former boss who murders self-esteem for sport and a haughty math teacher I hated. Sociopathic figures of authority have so much in common!
The nerve-fraying buildup culminates in a showdown where both fury and talent are gloriously unleashed and it’s a sublime final half hour! Though relatively new to the industry, Chazelle already displays the sort of confidence that a great filmmaker possesses. Whiplash has an infectious rhythm and energy about it. It is as spontaneous, electrifying, transcendental and precise as a live jazz performance.
Whiplash opens in Golden Village cinemas tomorrow. Will you be catching it?