Blood, sweat and tears are ever present in Damien Chazelle’s raucous drama about a painstaking search for genius. The innovative camera movements and invasive shots allow us to experience the anguish of every drum beat and each cymbal clash – making Whiplash the most satisfying movie I’ve seen in months. Nominated for five Academy Awards, and five BAFTAs, Whiplash is a shining example of the near-perfection achievable when performance, direction and various technical elements harmoniously combine in cinema. This year’s Academy Award nominees have been criticised for their lack of diversity and their boring predictability. Amongst the numerous biopics and tales of human suffering and struggle, Whiplash sits – bringing variety, originality and energy to an otherwise rather dull group of competitors. There is, of course, also Birdman, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel amongst the other conventional candidates but Whiplash still maintains its presence, even next to these innovative contenders. The first minutes of Whiplash throw the protagonist and the anti-hero right at you. Andrew studies at one of the most prestigious music academies in America. He is already in a high pressured position. He is a solitary being. We meet him in the movie’s first moments. He is alone – drumming, until another loner stumbles across his rehearsal.
Revered music teacher, Fletcher, rapidly tests Andrew on different rhythms and techniques before vanishing as quickly as he came. Initially, Andrew squirms as his behaviour and attitude towards drumming is instantly challenged. It is not long before Andrew is invited to try out for Fletcher’s prestigious jazz band and soon finds himself trapped in a world of the most vicious type of motivation imaginable – featuring abusive behaviour and tactile mind games. Whiplash is about pushing boundaries, in the name of both art and abuse. J.K. Simmons conducts Fletcher in a way that makes you instantly recognise his authority. J.K. Simmons uses his facial muscles and eye contact to bring us a monstrous manipulator. The conductor plays with the emotions and wellbeing of his pupils – supposedly in the name of art. It’s what we don’t see Fletcher do that is the most sinister. Firstly, he makes Andrew arrive 3 hours early for a rehearsal; a happening that nobody’s brave enough to question. He uses fear as a method for achieving constant focus and greatness from his pupils. Fletcher’s control over Andrew is at its most obvious and powerful when Andrew reflects his mentor’s own behaviour. Miles Teller is outstanding as the young drummer. He expertly makes Andrew a man lodged between a dream and a danger zone. There is so much psychology present in Whiplash; too much to discuss here.
The performances and characters are remarkable. Both men grow through their rage and revenge. A shared love of the art and a desire to leave behind a legacy simultaneously unites and divides student and teacher. Whiplash builds to an explosive conclusion – leaving us with many ethical questions unanswered. Whiplash wants you to make up your own mind about the behaviour and method brought to life by both Teller and Simmons. By the time we reach the finale we too are addicted to the idea of creating a legacy; we’re as hungry for the redemption and revenge as Andrew. The drummer is always trapped by his respect for Fletcher, encouraged only by his need to be one of the greats. Whiplash deals in addiction, desire, passion and manipulation which all play out like an orchestral chess game between the authority and the artist. It is comparable with David Fincher’s The Social Network; both films centre on a personal hunger for success and a youthful angst. Thanks to the film’s editing, Whiplash not only tells a slick and intelligent story but it somehow keeps you interested in the art of drumming for nearly two hours. Every shot feels like a new and original study of the instrument, inter-cut with powerful and intrusive close-ups; crisp and powerful. Whiplash is first and foremost about abuse but it balances these atrocities by celebrating the art of jazz in and amongst its dark undertones and suspenseful current. Whiplash is American cinema at its rawest. J.K. Simmons is terrifying in this cautionary tale about knowing your limits and the sacrifices you make – and the rewards you reap – when you are brave enough, and stupid enough, to push past them.
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