Whiplash

Whiplash

I can’t claim to know much about jazz.  In fact, I can barely claim to know anything about it.  While I have some fleeting knowledge of most musical genres, jazz continues to be a mystery to me.  I also doubt I’m alone in that.  Jazz isn’t a genre that gets much love in the here and now.  However, no one, and I mean no one, should allow that to stop them going to see Whiplash.

Telling the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a student at Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in America, and someone who believes he is rather shit hot at the drums.  In fact, his goal in life is to be one the greatest jazz drummers of all time and it is a goal he is happy to work towards with every fibre of his being.  Standing in his way, is Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) one of Shaffer’s conductors, who chooses Andrew to be his new drumming alternate.  What at first seems a cordial relationship, quickly turns into something much darker, as Fletcher both mentally and physically tortures Neiman in an attempt to get the very best out of him.

This relationship becomes the very core of the film, transforming into one that on one hand seems to comprise pure hatred from both sides, but on the other hand a lot of respect.  Neiman takes everything that Fletcher throws at him and seemingly uses it to push himself to new levels of pain and dedication.  It becomes a terrifying example of a master and student relationship, as they look a just how far Neiman is willing to push himself in order to gain the approval of this conductor who treats him like shit.  It’s also a relationship that some people have criticised, suggesting that it’s a damaging portrayal of what it takes to be successful  I don’t go along with that.  I never think this film suggests this is a good thing.  The normal people in these two characters lives look at their infatuation with horror.  While the story of one of Fletcher’s former pupils, points towards how wrong this can go.  Instead, this film suggests this unhealthy relationship is how certain people need to be pushed.  Andrew maybe needs this, to blunt his own confidence and push him to levels he can’t get to on his own, but that doesn’t mean everyone else needs the same thing.

Now, some people might worry that shots of drumming will quickly grow old.  It’s not a lie that most go and get a beer when the drum solo kicks in at a concert.  However, the way this is shot means that rather than wanting the drumming to be over, you find yourself on the edge of your sheet.  Director Damien Chazelle turns drumming into more than a simple playing of an instrument and instead makes it a battle.  A battle between Neiman and his own body, as he literally bleeds onto the kit, as he desperately fights to play the parts that Fletcher asks him to.  This way of shooting turns drumming into a physical, almost animal like activity as the players need to give their heart and soul into every piece of music they play.

Finally, we come to the performances.  The one that has been talked about is of course J.K. Simmons, who gained an Oscar nomination for this role.  He is wonderful.  He turns Fletcher into a snarling demon of a man, who at times you question whether he actually has a conscience, as he pushes his poor students to the very edge of their tether.  However, what is even more remarkable is the moments of calmness in among the storm.  Even having seem all that we have seen, he manages to make us feel sorry for him, to believe that this horrible person is actually not that bad and maybe he is just doing his best for these kids.  Of course, the rug is often pulled out from under out feet shortly after, as he screams in someones face or launches a chair at their head, reminding us this is not a character we should like.

Simmons performance would be pointless however, if he didn’t have someone to play off of.  Miles Teller gives him that someone throughout the whole film.  His portrayal of Andrew Neiman is a fascinating look into someone who wants to be the best.  He shows this characters drive, but also his weakness.  Drumming is his life and he struggles with basic human interaction outside of that, with nearly all his conversations with ‘normal’ people, ending in disaster.  He brilliantly shows just what effect Fletcher is having on him, worming his way into his brain as he cuts his confidence from underneath him, but also pushing him, pushing him to fight to be the very best.

Whiplash is a wonderful film and by far my new favourite among those that are up for an Oscar.  It is a dark, terrifying look at how people can torture others and yet it’s also thrilling and exhilarating and you find yourselves perched on the edge of your seat, your foot bouncing along to the beat of the music as it sweeps you up and drags you into this world that you had no idea you cared about.  If you have the chance to go and see one piece of cinema in the coming weeks, make it this one.

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