Whiplash

November 1, 2014
J.K Simmons & Miles Teller in 'Whiplash' (2014)
J.K Simmons & Miles Teller in 'Whiplash' (2014)

A movie about a young man studying to be a jazz drummer may sound like an entirely resistible proposition, but Whiplash is no lame musical comedy. Rookie writer-director, Damien Chazelle, has said he wanted to make a film about music that was more like a horror or gangster movie. Without including a single ghoul or gunshot he has succeeded. This is one of the most impressive and surprising features of the year.

It’s especially impressive when one learns that 29-year-old Chazelle has only made one previous feature, a low-budget indie with the riveting title, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009). Whiplash is a movie that would be an ornament in the career of a master director. In purely technical terms it is streets ahead of a feature such as Kill the Messenger, made by a vastly more experienced filmmaker.

Whiplash is a film about music in the same way that Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men (1952) is about rodeos, or Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge (1986) is about the army. It’s a powerful study of the relationship between a young man and an older mentor, a psycho-drama that anatomises the desire to be the very best.

Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a freshman drummer enrolled in a prestigious New York musical academy. Coming from a poor, nondescript background Andrew is fired by an ambition to be the best drummer in the business, following in the footsteps of Buddy Rich.

The film begins with him practising alone in a room when he is interrupted by Terence Fletcher, the all-powerful head teacher, who barks orders at him in a manner that prefigures the ordeal that lies ahead. Fletcher is played by J.K.Simmons as the worst kind of cinematic sergeant-major, an outrageous perfectionist with more than a touch of sadism. He is a master mind-bender who uses verbal abuse and even physical violence to impose his will on the students, with no personal trait being safe from his lacerating insults. Fletcher plays the genius but there is something of the charlatan in his ferocious, larger-than-life performances.

When Andrew is unexpectedly invited to turn up for rehearsals with Fletcher’s band he feels he is on the way to realising his ambitions, but he has no idea what is in store. Fletcher sees every sign of talent as a provocation to inflict pain. Like a Zen master he sets out to destroy any trace of pride or self-confidence, making his students start from scratch again and again. His reaction when a band-member loses the tempo veers between murderous anger and the cold, inquisitive methods of an experienced torturer.

The idea, needless to say, is to push students to the very limits of their abilities. “Good enough” is not an option. Andrew practises till his hands bleed. At Fletcher’s urging he plays to the point of physical collapse, drenched in sweat and grimacing in agony. The camera work and editing of these scenes is breathtaking, as we are held in the grip of a tension that keeps stretching by degrees towards breaking point.

Andrew’s commitment to the drums influences every aspect of his life. He has an angry dinnertime exchange with a dumb-ass cousin who sees himself as a rising sports star. Having overcome his shyness and secured a girlfriend, he dumps her because the drum kit requires all of his time.

Like the musical number that gives this film its title, the story spirals and builds to a crescendo. In the aftermath it starts all over again, as Andrew and Fletcher rebuild their fractious relationship. It’s like watching Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), in which we are drawn in by the growing obsession of the lead character. When it seems we have got to the end of a scene, Chazelle pushes it a little further. When we think we have detected a vein of human sympathy in Fletcher, he releases the monster within. It’s a grandstanding performance that reveals J.K.Simmons as one of America’s most underrated actors.

Whiplash poses the question: “What does it take to be the best?” Or more specifically, “How much can one sacrifice to be the best and not become inhuman in the process?” I was left thinking about Thomas Berhard’s novel, The Loser, which poses the same questions in relation to the pianist, Glenn Gould. We assume that one of the purposes of art is to deepen our sense of humanity but this film demonstrates that any activity pursued to extremes can become lethal. There are limits to art, and limits to personal sanity.

Whiplash
Written & directed by Damien Chazelle,
Starring Miles Teller, J.K.Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser
USA, rated MA 15+ , 106 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 1st November, 2014.

Tags:
,