WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
Andrew (Miles Teller) is budding young drummer, who’s just started at one of New York’s finest music conservatories. As he’s practicing in private, the head of the school’s competition jazz band, Fletcher (JK Simmons) bursts in, listens to Andrew playing for a while, belittles him and then disappears.
Over the next few weeks, Andrew competes with a couple of other aspiring drummers for the hot seat in Fletcher’s band. The brutality of Fletcher’s bullying ways make it hard to tell whether he’s constantly disappointed by whoever he gives the place to or whether he sees potential and tries to push his students as hard as possible to make sure they achieve greatness – or, at the very least, help him win national jazz band contests.
With the competition between the drummers in his own band every bit as fierce as the competition between rival bands, you wonder whether the three might start hitting each other with their drumsticks, but keeping their composure against adversity is one of the most important parts of keeping the whole band in rhythm. So is getting to the venue on time.
With all the good will in the world, when fate conspires against Andrew, he’s determined to beat the odds, but the pressure to please his overbearing and domineering teacher becomes so great that the antagonism between the pair threatens to destroy them both.
WHAT’S IT LIKE?
From the moment the first drum solo is heard over a black screen, through the times we see blood dripping from exhausted fingers to an ear shattering finale, a fierce drum-beat acts like the racing heart-beat of the most tense of thrillers.
The stand-off between the naive and determined young drummer and his rottweiler of a teacher swings between a grudging mutual respect and a fierce enmity fitting of a boxing film or a revenge movie – Miles Teller is constantly conflicted between a desperation to impress and a desperation to survive, while JK Simmons becomes more of a beast with each scene, reigning his protege back in with kind words, just enough to stop him running for the hills.
Damien Chazelle, a shade under thirty years of age, delivers an astonishingly mature take on the master-pupil relationship, as he explores the cutthroat world of jazz drumming in a way no-one would ever believe could be not only fascinating, but enthralling.
It’s an intimate and relatively small film, little more than a two-hander – from Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser) to his rival drummers and the rest of the band, the other characters are almost incidental to the battle of wits at the film’s pounding heart. Musically, Whiplash – referring not to the physical toll the film takes on viewers but a piece of music the band plays – is a must for fans of big band jazz, but even people with no interest in jazz will be lifted by the beat as it drives the story.
It’s an emotional roller-coaster of a journey that is almost as exhausting as it is exhilarating to watch and the drumming soundtrack that underlies the film will be ringing in your ears for days – in a surprisingly welcome way.
Thoroughly deserving of his Golden Globe and more fearsome than you could imagine any teacher to be, music or otherwise, Simmons – known to most for comic roles, such as the editor J Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films – is a revelation as this monster of music, a ruthless bully driven by an unhealthy passion for perfection. And Teller – most commonly seen in support roles in teen slacker movies – similarly rises above anything anyone might expect of him, going from one of the worst films of the past twelve months to arguably the best.
There are moments where Whiplash doesn’t quite feel complete – Fletcher hardly seems to be at all interested in any of the other instruments in his award-winning band and it’s not really clear why he seems to pick (on?) Miles over his rivals – and scenes where the personal drama gives way to standard Hollywood devices, to nudge the plot from one movement to the next.
But watching this apparently mismatched pair making enemies of each other as they make beautiful music together is just about as rewarding as any film could be.