Patrick Unwin reviews the intense and thrilling Whiplash“We’re gonna keep trying until we find a drummer who can play my tempo. I apologise to the musicians.”
The drummer is no stranger to ridicule and even Whiplash writer and director Damien Chazelle, himself a former drummer, can’t resist slipping this cliché into the midst of a film that bubbles with intensity and aggression.
Drummers often have a hard time of if it, as I myself can testify. We are bottom of the musical food chain, not having the required skill to play a ‘real’ instrument. You know, one with actual notes and stuff? Drummers are also assumed to be somewhat mentally unbalanced – I suppose most people find something odd about the fact that we take immense pleasure from hitting stuff really hard, really fast. Repeatedly.
While Whiplash may not do anything to dispel these notions, it is a hugely entertaining and remarkably assured piece of filmmaking from Chazelle, working on just his second feature film. The story follows the exploits of Andrew Nieven, played by Miles Teller, as a freshman as the prestigious yet fictitious Schaffer Conservatory music school in New York. Andrew is desperate to achieve greatness but in order to do so must impress the tyrannical Mr Fletcher, played by J. K. Simmons in a wonderfully unhinged performance.
The relationship between Andrew and Fletcher forms the core of the film, and the practice room becomes the battle ground on which Andrew must prove his worth. Every scene in which the two characters meet is fraught with tension. It is probably not surprising that Chazelle’s film has earned comparisons with Full Metal Jacket, as the atmosphere is more boot camp than jazz club. Much of the dialogue comes in the form of the tirade of abuse which Fletcher directs at his pupil and anyone else stupid enough to cross him.
There are some real choice sound bites – a particular favourite of mine is when an unfortunate member of staff at the concert hall is warned “Get the f*** out of my sight before I demolish you!” Fletcher’s rage often serves to punctuate the atmosphere with moments of shock value humour: the cinema filled with nervous laughter several times as I was watching. Emphasis on nervous, as Fletcher is not the type of man you want to be caught mocking.
Simmons’ performance has become the most talked about aspect of the film, and is a great deal responsible for its growing word of mouth popularity since its UK release a few weeks ago and he is utterly terrifying here. Critically, Simmons’ is entirely believable and for the most part he resists the opportunity to chew the scenery at every opportunity. Teller is able to match him every step of the way. There’s more to his performance as Neiven than innocent victim or aspiring student reaching for the stars and the intensity he projects raises interesting questions about the nature of ambition. The scene in which he puts down his cousins’ achievements at the dinner table reveals a near psychotic level of determination beneath his taciturn exterior. He may have more in common with Fletcher than is immediately obvious. This is one of the few moments when the film’s unrelenting pace lets up and allows for some reflection on what it takes to be great and the possible cost of that greatness.
The drumming itself is unimportant to this aspect of the film and could easily substituted for boxing, dancing or almost any other pursuit. Not to say that the musical aspect of the film is irrelevant, as the pounding drums make up for the skeletal script by reinforcing the sense of immediacy that permeates the film. Non-jazz fans and non-drummers need not worry, as the music of Whiplash is what makes it such a thrill ride with more excitement than most action blockbusters.
It could be said that Whiplash relies just a little too much on sheer visceral stimulation – the film offers more questions than answers and the narrative casts Fletcher’s methods in an ambivalent light. However, Fletcher’s assertion that “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’” does provide food for thought in a culture that is often gentle toward mediocrity. The latter quality can certainly not be assigned to Whiplash and the finale is as gripping as cinema can be.
Featured image credit: Daniel McFadden: Sony Pictures Classics