Whiplash (Chazelle, 2014) is about a 19-year-old, aspiring drummer, named Andrew Neyman. Andrew is reaching for the stars at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory – one of America’s most prestigious music schools. It’s here that Andrew meets his overzealous music teacher Terrence Fletcher (JK Simmons). The film centres upon their unusual relationship in what is essentially a ‘buddy’ movie – with Andrew wanting to be a great musician and Fletcher constantly pushing him. But, will Andrew overcome the odds or will Fletcher push him too far?
Whiplash is a brilliant film. I can’t speak with any authority on its Jazz credentials but it is a tremendous directorial debut; Chazella directs with a pizazz and confidence that is rare to find in such a young filmmaker and the fluidity of his camera work should also be commended. The film gives an Executive Producer credit to Jason Reitman, who has been at interviews to promote the film. Reitman’s influence can certainly be felt, most obviously in the script, what with its dysfunctional characters and of course the excellent casting of JK Simmons.
Simmons plays the monstrous Fletcher. Fletcher is manipulative and ferocious; he is a bully, picking on the members of his band for the way they dress, their gender or their sexuality. He is an antagonist, yes, but he is not without his softer moments and we catch glimpses of these – alluding to us that his character is more than what he appears. Simmons is brilliant as Fletcher and any award nomination for Best Supporting Actor would be well deserved. True, in some scenes Simmons looks a little amusing waving his arms about while conducting but he does so with authority, partly because he’s a very good actor but also because he studied conducting and has a degree in music.
The film begins with Andrew practicing alone at his drum kit. Almost by accident Fletcher stumbles upon him and asks him to play but he quickly dismisses the student in his charming way. And from here Andrew and Fletcher’s relationship develops into one of infrequent praise and constant challenges and put-downs. It isn’t hard to see why some have referred to the relationship as homoerotic. At one point Andrew decides to stop seeing his new girlfriend because he needs to spend more time working on his music, so he can ‘perform’ better and therefore impress/please his tutor.
Miles Teller does a wonderful job opposite the shouty Simmons. His character doesn’t always voice what he’s thinking, instead this is carried through in his actions, which is another sign of quality scriptwriting – knowing when your actors should tell the audience something and show them something. However, it takes a good actor be able to do the latter and Teller pulls this off with confidence. It might appear to be the less showy of the two performances but rest-assured, these characters are at war and both actors deliver outstanding performances.
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From Whiplash’s outset it’s not entirely clear what game Fletcher is playing, but it’s clear it’s a dangerous one. The slow reveal and development of the film’s two leads is pitch perfect and it’s these elements that make Whiplash such a tremendous joy. In the film’s finale, as everything falls into place – not just for us (the audience) but also for Andrew – you will be on the edge of your seat.
Fletcher pushes his students’ to extremes but he’s attempting to create the next Charlie Parker, the next jazz legend and he believes to do so involves sacrifice – it doesn’t matter if that means shedding blood, sweat or tears… or even throwing various musical instruments at your students!
As Whiplash concludes, and the adrenaline is pumping, you’ll have to decide if Andrew’s sacrifices were worth it, but personally, I don’t think there’s been a more cathartic moment in recent American cinema. Believe the hype.