It is a universal truth that some people want to be seen as special. Whether they have a certain talent or a unique air around them, it is a fact that everyone has a trait that they hold like a badge of honour. This idea serves as the subtext behind the critically acclaimed film by Damien Chazelle, which is already getting awards buzz for its lead and supporting actors since its debut at Sundance Film Festival 2014.
Whiplash follows the story of aspiring jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a student at the (fictional) Shaffer Conservatory, one of the best music schools in the US. He is spotted by fearsome teacher Terence Fletcher (J K Simmons) and is subsequently asked to join his band as his new alternate drummer. Initially courteous to Andrew, Fletcher’s imposing and abusive attitude surfaces as Andrew is unable to initially match his tempo. This drives Andrew’s determination in winning Fletcher’s approval, which eventually leads to shocking heights.
It has been a while since a film has created such anticipation. A former ‘Black List’ screenplay, Whiplash now joins the ranks of critically acclaimed films such as Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech. From its initial screening at Sundance, where it won the Dramatic Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize for a Dramatic Feature, Whiplash has appeared in various festivals, including the recent London Film Festival, and winning the hearts of fans and critics at the same time.
Whiplash goes against the grain when it comes to ambitious student/inspirational teacher cliche in film. Gone is the softly-softly approach, instead Cazelle brings in his script and vision a rawness to the dynamic that stems from a passion in reaching an individual’s true potential. The psychological prods from Fletcher as he pushes his musicians in practice leave little to the imagination, embodying the brutality of a drill sergeant in the dignified setting of the practice room, and Andrew’s irrational behaviour to winning his approval borders on self-degradation.
From the offset, Cazelle additionally creates an imposing, precise ambience that can be considered stifling but effectively draws focus to Fletcher’s uncompromising, domineering presence. As his attitude pushes his students to, quite literally, blood, sweat and tears, it brings to light to lengths that people will go to achieve perfection. The film is incredibly well-crafted, ranging from the quick edits to the extreme close-ups of Andrew’s sweat-covered drum kit, the consistent pacing drives the story and instills a relentless energy that leaves you shaking from adrenaline reverberating from the screen.
Teller and Simmons are electrifying in their respective roles. Teller brings in a powerhouse performance as the ambitious Andrew and his ‘I’m way better than you’ interaction with his jock brothers bring light relief, while Simmons steals the show with Fletcher’s vicious tongue and his unapologetic nature for his mission to excellence, showcasing what is easily his best performance to date.
It is almost too easy to argue that Whiplash is too brutal for a film celebrating music, but upon seeing Andrew’s final performance, which is full of bravado and passion, it is hard not to feel the triumph in his eyes.
Compelling, stunning and exhilarating, there are not enough superlatives to describe Whiplash and the impact of its lead performances.
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