Interestingly, ‘Whiplash’ is one of the few Oscar-nominated pictures that I hadn’t seen before the ceremony. After nabbing a hat-trick of awards on the big night, I was even more inclined to see what all the fuss was about. Initially, I was somewhat deterred by the musical undertones to the film, but retrospectively speaking, I can guarantee that whatever your level of interest in drum-sets or jazz music may be, you will enjoy this film regardless. Awards for sound mixing, editing and of course, the Oscar for supporting actor J.K Simmons, were all thoroughly deserved and indeed, ‘Whiplash’ could, and maybe should have won more. The whole ensemble involved in the production of this film, from top to bottom, creates one of the most dramatic films I have ever had the pleasure of watching.
First year student, Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), aspires to be one of the greats, to be a drumming legend. His commitment and ability soon attract the attention of Studio Band director, Terrence Fletcher (Simmons), who grooms Andrew into his curious little protégé. Fletcher throws everything at Andrew (including a chair) to push him to greatness. He slaps him, he torments him, he manipulates him and he parades rival drummers in front of him, but Andrew just keeps going and going. The young drummer very literally, produces blood, sweat and tears in the pursuit of his mentor’s approval, until Andrew’s life and Fletcher’s reputation are put in jeopardy. Andrew tries to forget about drumming, but a chance encounter with his former tutor leaves him unable to resist the lure of the drums. A dramatic and incredibly fast-paced plot, culminates in a heartbreaking betrayal by Fletcher, but Andrew steals the show with one last, “FUCK YOU” bravado up his sleeve.
Miles Teller provides an uplifting air to the intense narrative, an eternally positive component of a rather tragic and uncomfortable viewing experience. From his appearance, to his dialogue and the behaviour he exhibited, Teller really gave the impression of a fragile and delicate young man, particularly in the face of extreme pressure from his viscous mentor. His flat tone of voice and quite literal perception of the world, make Andrew rather socially inept and at times he is guilty of being void of any real emotion. But when it comes to drumming, Teller expertly transforms his character to a boy bursting with emotion and pent up frustration, which inevitably concludes in an eruption of anger directed at his sergeant-like leader. Without J.K Simmons however, none of this would be possible. Due to the buzz around Simmons’ performance, I already had a preconceived image of the ruthless mentor, which meant that from the moment he walked into that room, I was genuinely afraid. The intensity and ferocity which Simmons brings to the role however, was greater than I ever anticipated; a truly detestable villain. The Oscar for best actor in a supporting role could not have gone to anyone else, with Simmons balancing meticulous aggression, alongside moments of humour amongst the chaos and even the rare glimpse of fragility. The chemistry between Teller and Simmons is riveting, and I can certainly see why homoerotic tensions have been so readily discussed in relation to ‘Whiplash’.
In a film where sound is key, it is beautiful to witness the power of silence. There is an almost endless, uninterrupted backdrop of a repetitive, drumming sound, be it from non-diegetic music, raucous applause or solitary footsteps. Everything is in place to remind us of the vivacity of the high-tempo band, which makes the absence of sound in places so noticeable and significant, a silence which is ALWAYS controlled by the abominable Terrence Fletcher. The use of close-up shots are too much to handle, a truly terrifying, unavoidable viewpoint of the onslaught of abuse from Fletcher, whilst panning shots help to immerse the viewer in the world of the orchestra. The ongoing symbolism of the blood, sweat and tears serves as a constant reminder of the consuming effect the drums, and in turn Fletcher have had on Andrew’s life. I fail to recall many films which were capable of maintaining such an intensity throughout. I mean it literally never stopped.
From start to finish, I was simultaneously in a state of awe and fear, a testament to a truly breathtaking piece of cinematic work by director Damien Chazelle. The unbelievable editing, the ceaseless power of sound and the jaw-dropping energy throughout was quite simply, amazing. ‘Whiplash’ is unlike anything I have ever seen; butterflies, shivers down the spine, you name it, this film causes it. The film never loses its pace, but rather continues to accelerate right up to the inspiring, final crescendo; a solo which I prayed would never end. I needed more, the drums had taken over my life too.
DIRECTOR: DAMIEN CHAZELLE
STARRING: MILES TELLER, J.K SIMMONS