It’s not too surprising that most of the posters for Whiplash, and indeed the DVD cover, is covered in quotes and star ratings from reviews. After all, it was always going to be a tough sell at the cinema to get your average moviegoer to give it a chance, as few people will go ‘Do you fancy seeing the one about the young drummer who gets shouted at a lot?’ – unless you give them a damn good reason, that is. JK Simmons deservedly winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar didn’t hurt either.
It’s actually not too bad a plot synopsis that this is a film about a young drummer who gets shouted at a lot. It’s about a lot more than that too, not least what it takes to make someone truly great at something, rather than just being good.
Miles Teller is Andrew, whose been accepted to the prestigious Schaffer Music Academy – the best school in the country. If you’re studying jazz there, the group you want to be in is the Conservatory Session Band, and Andrew unexpectedly gets the chance to get close to this inner circle when he’s drafted in to be the alternate for the drummer.
This brings him into the sphere of the teacher/band leader, Fletcher (Simmons), a man who is absolutely determined that his group will be the best, and does this by endlessly hurling insults, beating his students into the ground and pushing them beyond the point of breaking. The students put up with it because they know that being part of the band can a great thing for their careers – and their paying – but is the chance of success worth the stress Fletcher inflicts on his students, or is this what is needed if you want to be truly excellent?
There are few films where when the end credits roll it’s difficult to imagine anyone else having played the central roles. While Miles Teller has the quieter part, he treats it with great subtlety and skill, bringing to life a young man who is absolutely, single-mindedly devoted to being a great jazz drummer, to the exclusion of all else. In less steady hands, the character may have seemed ridiculous, especially during moments where Andrew pushes himself past all reason in order to try and succeed. It could have felt utterly OTT and silly, but Miles allows you to believe that this is what that character really would do.
His contribution has perhaps been unfairly ignored due to JK Simmons much showier role, playing the venom spewing Fletcher, who treats insults almost as much as an artform as he does jazz. While it would have been easy for both the film and Simmons to paint Fletcher as a one-dimensional monster, they ensure there’s great humanity in him. In fact, you get the impression the reason he’s such a tyrant is because he’s almost got too much humanity, alongside a take-no-prisoners personality.
Writer/director Damien Chazelle has said huge chunks of film are based on his own life – as he is a jazz musician turned filmmaker himself. Hopefully though in real-life the jazz world isn’t quite the competition to be the biggest asshole imaginable it seems to be here, although as getting to the top probably does involve stepping on more than a few toes, perhaps it is.
Partway through I couldn’t help thinking of 50 Shades Of Grey. There’s nothing sexual in Whiplash, but there is undoubtedly a large dollop of both sadism and masochism, and a far more complex dissection of such relationships and what they might offer than the soft-filtered fantasy of Anastasia and Christian, whether they happen in the bedroom or not.
Overall Verdict: You may not think any movie about a jazz drummer would be to your taste, but Whiplash may surprise you, as it’s tense, brilliantly acted and a lot more fun than you’d think it could be.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac