Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K Simmons, Paul Reiser
Running time: 106 mins
UK Release date: 16 January 2015
Playing a musical instrument can be tough. Becoming the best, a true great – now that’s an even weightier task, one which is picked apart and its many steps measured carefully in Whiplash. Although it is perhaps best described as a ‘musical thriller’, the language of competitive sport is not out of place when talking about this film. The young director, Damien Chazelle, in his debut feature length production, has created a film that possesses the same grit and suspense as a sports thriller, and is based on a similar premise about success: being second best is just not an option.
Whiplash tells the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a talented drummer at a prestigious music school in New York. He wants to be a great. His walls are covered with drum charts and posters of his favourite musicians. He idolises Buddy Rich, and he longs to be the Charlie Parker of the drum world: ‘I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was.’
Andrew is shy but desperate for musical success: it is the only thing that will give him a sense of purpose. He feels misunderstood by his family and resents the mediocrity he finds in them, which leads to a sharp exchange one night over a family dinner. In order to escape such constraints, he is perfectly willing to forfeit relationships or his own happiness. His craving for the success of his musical heroes is accompanied by an awareness of the demands that will be placed on him and a willingness to meet those demands.
He is not alone. Everyone in his school wants to be the best, and the obsession with a particular definition of success is tangible throughout the film. Andrew’s talent is noticed by the school’s bandleader (J.K Simmons), who asks the drummer to join the school jazz band. Fletcher isn’t your average bandleader – he’s more like a Rottweiler with a metronome. He also has his own particular method of nurturing greatness: it involves breaking down the human spirit of the band players so that they practice more, sacrifice their relationships and put themselves on the line, physically and mentally. The wellbeing and sanity of the players are at the service of the music.
The film boasts some outstanding acting. Miles Teller must be commended for a performance that conveys effectively Andrew’s personal and musical struggles, a task in which he was helped, no doubt, by the fact that he learned the craft in order to play the drum parts you hear in the film – no mean feat, given the level of skill required. Teller manages to capture the frustration of what it feels like to not be able to do something straight away, the smugness that comes with a minor victory over a rival and the bitterness of defeat when the tables are turned. But the most fascinating dynamic in the film is the warring relationship between Andrew and Fletcher. As Fletcher pushes Andrew to his limit, we get an insight into the teacher’s darker side.
J.K Simmons seizes on the complexity of his character and allows the audience to do the same. He can be aggressive: he slaps pupils and throws objects at band players (however, many a performer’s autobiography would tell you he is far from the only musical director to do this). Even in his more poised moments, a latent violence simmers beneath the surface; it is as if he could explode at any moment. However, we can juxtapose this aggression with a more tender moment in the film, when Fletcher’s revelation about a previous student of his allows us to see the teacher for the first time in a vulnerable position. The audience’s journey through the film is essentially one of trying to read and understand the mercurial Fletcher and figuring out what Andrew Neiman can possibly stand to gain from his tortured mentor.
Whiplash is a fantastic, gripping film. The narrative is permeated by an uneasy intensity. Chazelle has said that the film was born of his own experiences as a musician, and I am sure there are many musicians who can see parts of Andrew Neiman in themselves and recognise parts of Fletcher in their teachers. The film raises questions about what greatness is born of and how it is best achieved. You may well leave the cinema thinking differently about personal sacrifice, and realising how just how much of their own happiness some individuals have given up in order to add to ours.