Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist
Andrew (Teller) a promising and ambitious young drummer attends a music academy in order to achieve greatness and he manages to get a place in the band led by Fletcher (Simmons). Fletcher’s methods to push his musicians using aggression and intimidation lead to a clash of personalities as Fletcher increasingly pushes Andrew to very edge of his physical and mental tolerance.
While during awards season there are always the films that come out seemingly made with the sole intention of winning awards, but one of the great things about the film industry’s annual season of self congratulatory backslapping is that often great films come out seemingly from nowhere to take everyone by surprise. Whiplash is one of those films that proves that when made well, even the most basic concept can be gripping and memorable drama.
In isolation, the premise of Whiplash does sound highly clichéd, but writer/ director Damien Chazelle skilfully avoids all of these as the narrative encompasses themes and ideas that could be applied to any art or profession; sheer determination, diligence and dedicating every moment of your life to achieve one goal may be essential to succeed, but can it ever compensate for lack of raw talent? Andrew obviously has talent, but does he have enough to succeed as one of the greatest at what he does? Well, it is status that Andrew intends to achieve no matter what the cost, and to get there he will have to dedicate his life to his art and be part of the band led by Fletcher.
As a character that believes “Good job” to be one of the worst phrases in the English language, Fletcher is more than the usual clichéd cruel-to-be-kind mentor characters that are often presented in films. Indeed, there was always a risk that Fletcher would just be a caricature, but thanks to Chazelle’s superb script and JK Simmons intense and commanding performance this is never the case. Obvious parallels have been made to Sergeant Hartman of Full Metal Jacket and some of the put-downs that Fletcher delivers to various members of the band are reminiscent of this, but are also often both darkly funny and genuinely scary as he pushes every member of his band, particularly Andrew, to the absolute limit. He is a terrifying and truly memorable character, but also one that has depth and not just an asshole for the sake of it.
One of the biggest surprises of Whiplash for me is how good Miles Teller is. I often completely despise the smarmy and smug characters he has played in films such as 21 & Over, That Awkward Moment and Divergent (how he will do as Mr Fantastic certainly intrigues me), but there is no denying that he is excellent here in a dedicated and extremely physical performance. There are moments when the annoying smarminess threatens to rear its ugly head such as a scene where he dumps his genuinely sweet natured girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) to dedicate his life to his profession, but otherwise Teller is superb and conveys perfectly the physical effects as Andrew literally bleeds for his art.
Cinema is of course an audio-visual experience and Whiplash deserves to be seen at a cinema with a great sound system as the soundtrack and editing making for a truly cinematic film, and this only enhances the narrative experience. The tight camerawork makes sure that we not only feel every beat that Andrew plays in many of the film’s exceptional set pieces but also the blood that drips from the cuts on his hand and the sweat that increasingly pours from his forehead.
Cliché is notoriously hard to avoid with a film such as this, and thought the film’s final third does include some slight narrative contrivances; Chazelle does skilfully avoid any lazy clichés to put together a finale that is a deeply satisfying, emotionally engaging and visually spectacular end to what is one of the best films of the year.
Whiplash is an adrenaline shot of pure cinema; Damien Chazelle takes what could easily be a painfully clichéd story, but with the help of two incredible performances, great sound design, extraordinarily tight editing, a razor sharp script and stunningly taut camerawork produces gripping cinematic drama of the highest quality.