After whipping up a storm at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, newbie director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash hit UK cinemas just hours after picking up five Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. Starring Miles Teller as drumming hotshot, Andrew, the first-year music student at New York’s prestigious Shaffer Music Conservatory, and J.K. Simmons, as the respected, yet highly feared music instructor, Terrence Fletcher, this truly is a cinematic epic that will leave you licking your lips, whilst reaching for a pair of drum sticks.
Andrew has one ambition: to be the best darn jazz drummer the world has ever seen. A man of few words – as is evident from his exchanges with “girlfriend” Nicole (Glee‘s Melissa Benoist) – the boy comes alive when in front of a drum kit. After being invited to join Fletcher’s band – which every student and his clarinet craves to be a part of – the youngster is determined to take his chance and become the best of the best. What he did not envisage, however, was how hard his new mentor would push him…
Simmons, Golden Globe winner for Best Supporting Actor and the big Oscar favourite, is an intimidating presence as the fearsome Fletcher. Yet beyond his bully boy antics, which literally leave students quivering in his wake, he has a surprisingly soft underbelly. On first impression he seems to be just one big meany – antagonising his students with insulting slurs and physical abuse, pushing them to their ultimate limits in search of greatness. Does he go too far? Most would agree he most certainly does, but beyond the chair throwing and face slaps, there is – as crazy as it sounds – method to his madness. Chazelle makes it abundantly clear, however, that there is another side to the teacher: touching moments are made painfully obvious – a sign that the guy does, deep down, have a heart.
Teller’s Andrew, a loner with a major ambitious streak, is an interesting character. The Spectacular Now actor, unfairly overlooked this awards season, may not say an awful lot, but his drive is evident. It is difficult to determine whether he is likeable or not; his ability as a drummer is clear – and he sure works his butt off to get better – but his ambition – spurred on by Fletcher’s incessant pushiness – makes him a real egotistical jerk. Yet in the grand scheme of things, this does not matter one iota. Simmons will get the plaudits (and rightly so) for the sheer ferocity of his performance, but Teller compliments him wonderfully in this musical one-two – of both body and mind – for the ages.
Whiplash is the musical version of an orgasm: faster and faster, toing and froing between Andrew and Fletcher, resulting in one ultimate nine minute drum smashing climax. The director, close-up upon close-up, shot on shot, builds the pace superbly, and despite a slight dip in intensity towards the end of proceedings, Chazelle gets his film back on track with a rip-snorting finale. It really does boggle the mind that the 29-year-old’s own directorial display was not recognised by the Academy, but his film finds itself sitting deservedly amongst the awards season front-runners. An intense, exciting, thought-provoking and thoroughly knackering ride.