I’m addicted to music, but you won’t find a traditional jazz album in my collection. I can’t fault the musicians, some of whom are the most talented artists ever seen (Herbie Hancock, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis), but I like my music to have a discernible melody, something I can sing or hum along to. Call me a music fascist, but the way I see jazz, the band is having a lot more fun than the audience. So a film that is pitched as a “jazz thriller” didn’t have me rushing to hand over my money at the cinema. The only reason I gave Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash a go is because of all the five-out-of-five reviews its been getting, and that it stars the mind –bogglingly underrated J.K. Simmons.
One of Whiplash’s many strengths is that there is no straightforward hero or villain here, Miles Teller’s college student Andrew and Simmons’ music teacher Fletcher are far more complicated than that. Andrew wants to be one of the greatest drummers of all time. He’s cocky and callous sometimes, putting his dream first and rarely stopping to think about his family or girlfriend, but the thought of dying without being remembered in the history books terrifies him. All of the legendary sport and music stars have that self-belief bordering on arrogance which puts them at the top of their game, practicing non-stop for hours, and Andrew is no exception. Cinematographer Sharone Meir near enough shoves the camera in Teller’s face as we watch him obsessing over a piece’s percussion, blood and sweat staining his drum kit, or his reaction when Fletcher repeatedly tells him his timing is off. Andrew is far from a cuddly, instantly identifiable protagonist, but you are willing him to succeed, to make it, to the point where you will most likely be nervously fidgeting in your seat.
J.K. Simmons has, for most of his career, had to put up with bit parts, making the most of his limited time on screen (Juno, Spider-Man). It’s taken a while but Simmons has, at long last, been given a role that shows off how talented an actor he is (Chazelle also wrote the script). Fletcher is both mentor and adversary, literally pushing Andrew to breaking point because he wants to unlock the talent this young man has. Music is Fletcher’s passion, but he puts that passion across through profanity-fuelled rages, throwing instruments at unsuspecting band members who don’t make the grade. Simmons manages to make Fletcher cruel and intimidating one minute, then laugh-out-loud funny the next, a tricky balancing act that most actors would struggle to make convincing.
Whiplash is filmed as if virtually every scene is from a momentous live gig, the editing a frenzied pace as we go back-and-forth, back-and-forth between Fletcher and Teller. The film is littered with close ups of Teller on his drum kit, sweat pouring down his face, hands stained with blood; you feel Teller’s struggle, the agony he’s going through just to get a nod or a smile off of Fletcher. Chazelle knows his music, he knows the composition of the film’s title song, written by Hank Levy, inside-and-out, showing off the musicians, whether it’s bassist, pianist or the horn section with perfectly timed shots that zoom in or swiftly pan across the band. Guaranteed, this is some of the best editing you will see in 2015.
Sadly, Whiplash isn’t quite perfect; there are fifteen/twenty minutes where the film lulls. Andrew is on his knees, his dream of being the next Buddy Rich looking like it will never happen. Yet Whiplash near enough follows the rules and traditions of the sports film, except you have a band instead of a team, a rehearsal space instead of a ring. We know that Andrew is going to get another chance, so why does Chazelle’s script take so long to get to this? There’s an impressive scene where Fletcher and Teller sit down and explain the reasons behind their actions, but you still feel like the film wobbles, that it loses that ferocious pace. As Fletcher repeatedly barks throughout Whiplash, “Not my tempo!”
Aside from a quarter-of-an-hour where the film oddly shifts down a gear, Whiplash is one hell of an experience. It’s emotional, has plenty of questions (for instance, are Fletcher’s methods of teaching barbaric or inspiring?), and, for most of its running time, fires along at a slick, white knuckle pace. Simmons and Teller have one of the most complex onscreen relationships of recent years; it’s primal, whilst also managing to be subtle. With awards season, where studios cynically churn out films that tick all the boxes to ensure an Oscar or a Golden Globe, Damien Chazelle’s debut is unlike anything you will see in cinemas this year. It doesn’t matter how you feel about jazz music, you need to give Whiplash a go.
4 out of 5