Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J. K Simmons
Plot: A college kid (Teller) with aspirations to be a great drummer gets a shot at learning from master coach, Terence Fletcher (Simmons), whose teaching methods border on abusive.
I understand why Whiplash, from the outside, looks like an intimidating film and one to be skipped. It is a film about jazz and drumming. Even music lovers might shy away from Whiplash, simply because Jazz is a dying genre, one that even me, someone who considers himself fairly open about music, rarely ventures into and explores. However, when you break into Whiplash, you will learn that Chazelle makes his jazz movie accessible by grounding it in movie tricks more associated with a sports movie, or even a thriller. You don’t come here to celebrate music; in fact, for a lot of the film’s running time, you might wonder if Chazelle even likes music, spending a good portion of the story questioning whether the extent artists chase after the elusive goal of being ‘one of the greats’ is worth the finishing result. In fact, if you were to leave this movie halfway through, you might begin to hate music, as Neiman, our lead, sees his life crumble around him, as he gets lost in the world of jazz. He starts the film likeable, but as he embraces the lifestyle, he, for a few beats, becomes the most easily hated character in the story, which is pretty hard for anyone that knows a smidge about how J. K Simmons attacks the character of Terence Fletcher. However, whether you love or hate music, you cannot deny that Whiplash is a very beautiful film. It is a simple set-up, Chazelle not overly bothered with flashy director tricks (at least outside of the intense drumming sequences). It is more about what he doesn’t do that impresses. A subplot with a potential girlfriend doesn’t fade away out of bad storytelling – Chazelle just understands that it stops mattering. There isn’t a desire to take care of loose ends in the story. Every beat is so precise and planned that you begin to see uncanny similarities between movie-making and drumming.
Miles Teller’s performance is endlessly interesting as Andrew Neiman. This is mainly because he plays the part a little like a drug addict. It is hard not to notice that specific scenes in Whiplash could be pulled straight out of a ‘recovering alcoholic or cocaine addict’ movie. Neiman’s life starts off with a passion for drumming as a nice hobby to liven up his character. He is a nervous, shy boy with no friends and a crush on the girl at his local cinema. The movie starts defining him through his love for drumming. However, the fun side to the hobby descends into something that tears Neiman’s life apart. Emotionally, as I said, Neiman slowly becomes an unlikeable character. He gets a chip on his shoulder, dumping his girlfriend and distancing himself from his family (the dinner table scene is cleverly written – yes, Neiman is a dick, but we can see his point). The extent to which he wishes to please his bullish mentor is terrifying. Some of the little outbursts we see in the trailer (bloody fists, angrily punching through a drum kit after a set), are only small glimpses of the breakdown that Neiman is trapped in, when he hits the arguable height of his success in the film. It isn’t just the emotional changes in the character, but his obsession is actually a very physical one. He begins to look sickly, sweat always glistening from his face and the complexion that suggest he has been up all night, trying to nail that elusive tempo. He begins to twitch, mentally mimicking the beat of a drum, so trapped in his imaginary performance that he doesn’t realise that he looks like he is on a bad trip, or even a victim of a mental illness. It gets to a certain point in the film that when he goes through the withdrawal, time away with his family, part of the film (yet another staple of the recovering drug addict genre), we don’t want him to have that triumphant return to music. Yes, he loves the drums and in any other sports movie or character piece, we would expect him to return to the stage with a powerhouse finale, but here, we know how destructive his lifestyle had become. Even if the movie ends with the close of a curtain and applause, what happens after the credits roll and Neiman returns to his old drummer ways?
Then there is J. K Simmons. Terrence Fletcher is a terrific character, easily the best thing the actor has ever done. It is as if Simmons has been waiting for the perfect role to unlock his potential and he has found it with Fletcher. Sure, the character is prone to the tad bit of over-enthusiastic melodrama – that is part of the fun – but it is the quieter moments where Simmons shines. The quiet thoughtfulness. The presence of a circling shark. He is far more powerful, when you are unsure if the next sentence out of his mouth is a yell or a quiet compliment. Watching Fletcher is akin to watching a horror movie, anticipating the next jump scare. It is here where we stumble across another genius piece of restraint from Chazelle: what is Fletcher’s backstory? We expect it to kick in at any moment, the conventional moralising of the monstrous villain, so the audience can see a peek behind his angry mask and realise what he is trying to accomplish. It never comes. We are given glimmers of what it could be. One scene sees Fletcher get a phone call that clearly distresses him, yet we are never told specifically what it is (we can make a good guess, but it is never confirmed). This leaves us with a confused impression of his abusive mentor figure, knowing that there is a softer side to the character, but the audience are never allowed to know the details of what that is. As a result, Fletcher ends up being slightly redeemed by his love for music. Simmons allows the character to finally find serenity and peace behind that perfect melody, that worthy jazz song. And then we move onto the biggest question Chazelle asks: does this make everything Fletcher does OK? The movie finds itself in an interesting catch 22, where if Neiman proves Fletcher wrong and embraces his potential, he has technically also proven him right. Neiman has got to the level of drumming to show Fletcher up through Fletcher’s own training and unconventional teaching style. When the end credits roll, you aren’t sure who has won.
Final Verdict: Whiplash is so much more than a movie about Jazz; it is a thrilling battle of wits between two great characters, performed by some terrific actors.