There’s two ways to enjoy Whiplash, and it all depends on your state of mind. Damian Chazelle’s first mainstream movie explores what it takes to be great, and in doing so shows us a true villain, in the form of JK Simmons as Terence Fletcher, a teacher hellbent on drawing talent out of his music students through physical and psychological bullying.
The way you enjoy the film then, depends on what extent you have been exposed to a character like Fletcher. For me I have endured similar traits from a particularly nasty boss, and so the film to me is like a nightmare. It is unnerving and unsettling to the point of drawing out anxiety; the same feelings that Miles Teller’s drum prodigy Andrew Neiman experiences.
If you’ve never encountered a Fletcher, the film plays more as a Full Metal Jacket, drill sergeant piece of comedy, full of biting one liners and an understandable lack of sympathy for those who ‘can’t take the heat’.
Whichever way you see the film you are going to love it. The jazz music backdrop in which the story takes place may seem off-putting to those that don’t have any interest in that musical genre, or in musicianship in general. But a backdrop is just what it is. To all intent and purposes this is no different than any great battle of unstoppable force meeting immovable object. It is an examination of genius, and creates a wonderful debate as to whether Fletcher’s unorthodox, immoral actions are what it takes to make someone step up their game and reach the top level.
At a family dinner where Neiman’s talent and accomplishments are glossed over in place of his cousin’s sporting achievements in a division 3 football team, Neiman says “I’d rather die drunk and broke at 34, and have people at a dinner table talk about me, than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remember who I was,” and it’s this sentiment that drives the entire film. I suppose the question is, is it worth sacrificing every single facet of your life save the one that might garner you critical acclaim? And smartly Whiplash never really answers the question, which allows the audience to go on debating it for hours afterwards (the car load of people I went with certainly did, and no real conclusion was made).
Like the also oscar nominated Theory of Everything, this is a performance piece that rests solely on the shoulders of Teller and Simmons, and both deliver the highest calibre turns you could hope for. Simmons is terrifying, the deep cut lines on his face evidence of a life lived hard and focused. And Teller is the face of innocence, transforming before our eyes into a shell of himself as he fights to remain in Fletcher’s core studio band. And yes it is Teller playing the drums, and yes he is insanely good.
Aside from the performances the other star of the show, for me, is the editing. During the musical pieces the cuts flow along with the rhythm, managing to make individual stories out of each song, and escalating to some of the most frenetic cutting possible as Neiman sweats and bleeds to play ever faster, ever more intricate patterns.
January and February are now becoming the standard months for the very best cinema of any given year, and Whiplash is no exception; a film that I have no doubt will still be in my top 5 of 2015 come December. You have to see this.