The hype surrounding the surprise Oscar contender Whiplash, seems to have exploded unannounced, like the crash of a cymbal, rather than the slow build of a drum roll, like so many of its competitors. However the problem with going to see a film in the midst of unprecedented word-of-mouth hype is that however good it is, it often fails to meet one’s elevated expectations. However, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s second feature-length film met my expectations, and exceeded them.
On the surface, this is a film about a mentor and a protégé; the surly anti-social music teacher and conductor, Mr Fletcher played by J. K. Simmons, and the intense young wannabe jazz drummer, Andrew, played by Miles Teller. Whiplash injects vigour into this well-worn dynamic, with Simmons’ teacher employing all manner of questionable psychological tactics to push his young ward to the pinnacle of his abilities. Fletcher sees the hunger, drive and desire in Andrew that he requires in a student, in order to mould them into a great musician. Fletcher believes that only extreme behaviour, in the form of dedication from the musician, and drill-sergeantesque encouragement from the teacher can produce extreme brilliance, and it is this single-minded belief that drives him to push Andrew to the limit physically and mentally. Fletcher hurls shocking verbal insults at Andrew, as well as physical objects, but more often than not he is quiet & brooding, and it is then that he is at his most menacing. His performance mirrors the music in the film; subtle, tight and controlled, punctuated by alarming crescendos of rage.
The direction, like every other element of the film, including the performances and the score, is tense, physical and imposing. There is ample use of extreme close-ups and slow motion, to emphasise the intensity and physicality of the performances, and there are a number of fast, jerky camera movements that unsettle the viewer and keep them on the edge of their seats.
The film as a complete package is doubly impressive when you consider that the film’s director Damien Chazelle, himself once an aspiring jazz drummer, is only 30 years old. Such a confident and measured film from such a young director is exciting, and will no doubt lead to much anticipation for Chezelle’s next offering La La Land, which is currently in pre-production, and slated for release this year, with Emma Watson rumoured to play the romantic lead, beside Whiplash’s Miles Teller.
Immediately after watching the film, I was smitten, but on reflection, I have a few small criticisms. There was a distinct lack of female characters, but this may have been a deliberate choice, to emphasise the macho, physical nature of the film. The only female character of any note, Andrew’s short-lived girlfriend, was a little one-dimensional, and not featured for any length of time, but once again, perhaps this was a deliberate attempt to highlight Andrew’s single-mindedness, and lack of ability to focus on anything other than his music. Andrew’s father lives alone, and we neither meet Andrew’s mother, nor hear anything about her. Some background information would have been nice, to justify his obsession with music, but again, perhaps it is a deliberately blinkered view of the narrative that the viewers are shown, to mirror Andrew’s blinkered view of life. There are also times when the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher borders on the absurd, with both Andrew and even Fletcher ignoring their physical wellbeing and social boundaries in pursuit of their dream.
Whiplash is a film that draws the viewer in completely, engages them in the narrative, makes them invest in the characters, and gives them very little respite. I left the film exhausted but exhilarated. Despite not being a fan of jazz music, I was gripped by the musical set pieces in the film, and even that most self-indulgent of musical flourishes; the drum solo, becomes utterly enthralling. It takes a special script, performed masterfully, and shot exquisitely in order for audiences to become completely wrapped up in the narrative, despite having little knowledge or interest in the subject matter and Whiplash does this brilliantly. I left the cinema wanting to head straight for the nearest jazz club. Thankfully, I have now come to my senses, but despite not quite converting me into a jazz aficionado, if any film could, it would be this one. As musical propaganda, it’s about as good as it gets.