Drama: Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang. Directed by Damien Chazelle. Cert 15A
Considering that it was shot in just over a fortnight with a novice writer/director at the helm makes Whiplash all the more amazing an achievement, proving yet again that throwing all the money in the world at a project counts for little or nothing if the writing and performances aren’t up to scratch and this film oozes quality from the off.
You might think, as I did, that a film about an ambitious young jazz drummer and his mentor at a New York conservatory wouldn’t exactly be ripe with dramatic possibilities but you’d be so, so wrong. Whiplash is one of the freshest, most vibrant films I’ve seen in an age with two great performances from its leads – one of them career-defining tour de force – and a fantastic soundtrack to boot. It’s breathtaking.
Miles Teller plays Andrew, a new student at Shaffer Conservatory. In thrall to the drum legend Buddy Rich, he’s anxious to escape his smalltown background and make a name for himself in the competitive, if hardly financially lucrative, world of jazz. Shortly into the film we see him practicing when a black-clad and thoroughly intimidating figure enters the room. From the off it becomes clear that Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the Conservatory band’s conductor, is a man who oozes menace and determination in equal measure but he nonetheless instructs the young sticksman to a rehearsal the following day.
In a standard mentor/protege relationship (usually to be found in sports movies, as writer/director Damien Chazelle has acknowledged) there are ups and downs before an eventual resolution but Whiplash tears that script up to a large extent. Fletcher rules his roost with an iron fist and a verbal viciousness you’d expect from a US Marines drill sergeant. His cruelty and demands could be seen as excessive but his core belief that only by leaving sweat and, literally, blood on the instruments can greatness be achieved is a strongly-made one.
Simmons is absolutely astonishing as Fletcher but Teller is a match for him as Andrew. The trick Chazelle pulls off here is that while Fletcher may ostensibly be the ogre Andrew is no angel either. He’s equally driven and ambitious and, in a scene where he goes home for a family dinner, a smug and superior little git who’s not above putting the verbal boot in himself.
To reveal any more about the plot would be unfair but it unfolds in some surprising ways, leading to a climax which is as gripping as any cliffhanger. There isn’t an ounce of flab here, no fancy frills or trickery just a great story driven along by two terrific performances and a fabulous soundtrack. Truly unmissable cinema.
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