Whiplash (2014)

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It starts not with a whimper, but a bang. And a crash. And Andrew Neiman demonstrating his rudiments to Shaffer Conservatory maestro Terence Fletcher. Whiplash isn’t for wasting time. Damien Chazelle’s second feature makes a point of jettisoning anything that might get in the way of the pursuit of excellence. Gone are friendships, gone are romantic liaisons. Gone is any hope of a normal life. Who’d want it anyway? The only thing that matters is being the best. It’s an electrifying, terrifying experience.

This is the story of Neiman (Miles Teller), an aspiring jazz drummer at Shaffer. It’s also the story of anyone who wants to be exceptional. Unlike usual depictions of artistic genius, he can’t just swing by the studio and pick the beat up instantly. Whiplash explores what lies behind seemingly effortless performances. And the answer is (literal) blood, sweat and tears, and a destructively single-minded focus that brushes aside potential entanglements.

But too often mundane life gets in the way. Early on, Neiman tentatively dates Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a student working in the New York cinema he frequents. Then there’s his placid father (Paul Reiser) who supports him by caring about his welfare. They’re good people but is good enough? Step forward J.K. Simmons to blow everything out the water as Neiman’s hyper-aggressive teacher, Fletcher. Simmons is a supporting actor often relegated to cameo roles. He only gets a few lines, invariably the best in the film. Here, he’s given full range to impose his muscular fury on Neiman in a performance that surely ranks as the finest of his career.

He’s a cruel, vindictive taskmaster who thinks nothing of reducing his charges to tears, hurling abuse at them, and even a chair at one point. Every indignity is inflicted to try and find that one musical genius so far eluding him. An oft-repeated story is that of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, who had a cymbal thrown at him when he performed poorly. In Fletcher’s telling, it sent him away to try harder. When asked if his behaviour might discourage, he’s instantly dismissive. A Charlie Parker can’t be discouraged. The biggest danger is always complacency.

There’s a stripped down brilliance beneath the impressive double header. Chazelle, who also wrote the screenplay, constantly defies expectations. Playing with convention, he throws out the love story and sets up several moments of apparent triumph for Neiman, only to reel them in. Neiman himself, played with mounting intensity by Teller, is first presented as the harmless innocent before his own selfish drive comes to the fore.

Rarely is the path to the top portrayed with such nuts and bolts grind. Rarely are methods this questionable. Rarely is it this exciting. Chazelle shot his feature in an astonishing 19 days. It doesn’t show, just as the enormity of Neiman’s struggle will have stayed hidden from the audience in the thrilling climax, a dazzling moment leaving an unsteady feeling of shell shock as the credits roll. This is all about greatness. Fletcher seeks it, Neiman wants it. Whiplash has it.

Whiplash is out in UK cinemas on 16 January 2015.

Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle (screenplay)
Stars: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist
Runtime: 107 min
Country: USA

Film Rating: ★★★★½

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