Review: Whiplash

You might notice this review isn’t headlined as ‘Unlimited’ – I saw this on a plane to Dubai. Not exactly comparable to a cinema, but what the hell – I couldn’t see this anywhere on release.

Most of the time, unless you actually like jazz music, someone telling you a film about jazz is worth seeing is normally the cue to run a mile. Whiplash is a film that, yes, is about jazz – but it’s also about that psycho every person encounters in their lives who simply will not settle for alright, or good, but perfect – even if it requires emotional, physical and mental abuse.

Music school student Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller) is a jazz drummer who catches the eye of notorious instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and before long is invited to one of his club sessions to play. The insanely high standards Fletcher holds his players to begins to challenge and slowly consume Andrew, as he starts to understand that rumours about Fletcher’s dangerous, gruelling methods aren’t just true, but worse than he thought.

You can’t review this film without referring to the fact that J.K. Simmons (best known for playing Spider-Man’s irate editor boss in the first three movies) won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role, and within about five minutes you start to see why. He’s a bald and muscular, terrifying presence, and his fuse is most certainly short, if not permanently smouldering.

Whiplash_posterThe fury and anger he brings to the film brings to mind the authority figures we’ve all encountered – the ones you’d just love to tell where to stick their rage issues, but you can’t, and sometimes part of you wants to succeed just to put their noses out of joint. What really makes this film such a searing watch is the way director Damien Chazelle frames and captures the intensity and tension between Fletcher and his players – with Teller’s Andrew our cypher as he slowly comes to terms with what’s expected of him.

Teller is an up-and-coming Hollywood actor, and his performance here is great because it has to counter the force of nature that Simmons is as well as offer the audience some form of sympathy . You feel for Andrew as he strains to be what Fletcher wants him to be, and everything else begins to fall by the wayside as he constantly pushes himself, until he can’t push any more at a certain point (where, unfortunately, the plot takes a bit of a nosedive).

Other characters are almost set dressing or plot points, with Melissa Benoist’s girlfriend and Paul Reiser’s father two parts of Andrew’s life that become marginalised as he obsesses over becoming part of the band. To be honest, this film could work as a stage show – the focus on the two characters and the intensity would be a great fit.

The music itself, particularly the drumming, gives the film itself a rhythm and a tempo (one word you will never hear in the same way again after watching this) that force it along to a relentless and gripping conclusion. The fact that Chazelle is in his 20s and this is his first movie absolutely blow my mind – directors with entire careers would struggle to make something this intense. Scenes with a few characters playing the drums suddenly appear more tense than scenes in other movies where a character’s life is in peril – Chazelle effortlessly tightens the screw until it’s almost unbearable to watch, and only afterwards you remember that all it was was someone trying their best to nail a drumbeat in time with the instructor’s expectations.

If I had any complaints, they would be that certain elements of the plot (as I mentioned earlier) let the film down slightly, and don’t ring true, especially towards the latter half. Also, the unfortunate sidelining of other characters is a casualty of the film’s focus on the main two. But in all fairness, I was quite astonished by this film and its power – and in particular Simmons’ furious performance.

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