It’s extremely rare for drummers to be given the spotlight in any kind of band, and it seems similarly unusual for musical films to focus on Jazz, arguably the least welcoming of mainstream music genres. Whiplash, the big winner at last year’s Sundance film festival and now a bona fide Oscar contender, focuses squarely on an aspiring Jazz drummer, and this decision to follow a less obvious musical position also comes to define the film itself. While it may feature scenarios that possess familiar character dynamics, Whiplash is a film that just refuses to be formulaic, and is all the more admirable for it.
Miles Teller stars as Andrew Neiman, a first year student at the Shaffer Conservatory in New York, one of the country’s best music schools. He’s seen practising one night by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the conductor of the school’s premier jazz band and a teacher with something of an infamous reputation at the school. Though initially dismissive, Fletcher sees enough potential in Neiman to invite him to join his band as an alternate, with the possibility of becoming a core member.
It’s here that Neiman first gets a taste of Fletcher’s teaching style. Informed by an anecdote about Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at Charlie Parker for playing badly one night, he firmly believes that genius-level playing can only be drawn out by abusing his students till they almost reach breaking point. Teachers are rarely portraying well on screen, often being clichéd inspiration-givers or just buffoons, but Whiplash gives us one of the more fascinating portrayals of one yet. Fletcher has more in common with Full Metal Jacket’s brutal drill instructor Gunnery Sergeant Hartman than anyone else. Like Hartman, he’s capable of destructively witty verbal put-downs, yet is an imposing force who generates genuine fear in his students.
Simmons has been one of the most welcome character actors in American cinema for years now. His best-known roles previously were probably three disparate characters; the good natured father in Juno (Juno director Jason Reitman is a producer here) a ferocious neo-Nazi gang leader in HBO’s Oz, and the scene stealing, hilarious editor J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. I’ve mentioned in both my reviews of Sony’s wretched Amazing Spider-Man movies that they’ve concocted ways to avoid having Jameson appear, I believe this is because they know whoever they cast could never be as good as Simmons was. The latter two performances appear to inform his work in Whiplash, where he’s capable of being both comic and terrifying. His explosive temper creates tension in every scene he’s present in, and he’s practically the co-lead. Simmons’ work is incredible, precise enough to never resort to over-the-top histrionics or reducing Fletcher to a one-note bully. He’s a fully fleshed-out character, and even his harshest moment makes sense in the light of information revealed later. He isn’t simply a screen villain, and Whiplash never explicitly condemns him, instead inviting discussion on the dubious merit of his methods. Simmons is tipped to win an Oscar next month, and if he does it’ll be well-deserved.
Again, a description of its set-up might make Whiplash sound predictable – the young hero must try his hardest to overcome his tough teacher to reach and succeed in a competition at the end – but that’s not what this film is at all. Most pointedly, Andrew is not some plucky underdog to easily root for. The film almost goes out of its way to ensure that we know Andrew is a bit of a jerk. He’s driven solely by a need to be the best drummer, and in one scene dispassionately explains to his girlfriend that he no longer wants to see her as she will get in the way of his drumming. He also has nothing but contempt for his competitors to the core band position, or indeed those who don’t respect his achievements. Though musicians may find some catharsis in a scene when he berates his family members for valuing mediocre sporting achievements over musical excellence, there’s no doubting that Andrew is acting in a very rude manner. This is also another real sign of promise for Miles Teller’s future; he unfortunately followed 2013’s wonderful The Spectacular Now with a couple of terrible comedies, but he holds his own here against Simmons’ tour-de-force. He’s outstanding in the drumming sequences too, I don’t know how much visual trickery was used for these but there are plenty of moments when Teller is clearly playing the drums himself, and he’s totally convincing.
Teller isn’t the only young talent Whiplash highlights though, its writer-director is Damien Chazelle, who was only 28 when he made it. Previously best known for writing the fun, music-themed thriller Grand Piano, this is undoubtedly a step-up and a calling-card for Chazelle. His skilful editing brings a thrilling excitement to the musical sequences even those with zero interest in Jazz will have a tough time denying.
There is one unfortunate moment that briefly questions the plausibility of Whiplash’s events, but aside from that Chazelle’s screenplay is spot-on. The further the film goes, the less predictable it becomes, there are even moments of real shock. I certainly couldn’t have said it would end the way it does, but it on reflection it’s the perfect moment.