There are some films you see coming a mile off. All of the big superhero films get chatter on the web and in the film press years ahead of their release dates, usually before they even have directors attached. I’ll admit that I am one of the many who lap this stuff up but it is mostly months and months of insignificant announcements; screenwriters come and go, concept art gets released and casting rumours float around. Generally there is very little to get genuinely excited about.
Much more interesting are the movies that generate attention based on their actual merits. These pictures are often independent pictures that do the rounds at the film festivals, properly earning accolades and admiration as they go. Whiplash is one such movie, having generated initial buzz when it opened Sundance last year, going on to win the festival’s Audience Award. The positive US reviews crept over the pond, liberally using words such as intense, raw, visceral, gripping and brutal and it has now picked up five Oscar nominations including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Picture.
What is this film then, is it a war movie, is it a true life triumph over adversary flick, a driven sports parable? Nope, it’s just a story about a kid who plays drums in a jazz band.
Of course with great films the subject matter doesn’t really matter. You didn’t have to be interested in Formula 1 to love Senna, or fascinated by ballet to be wowed by Black Swan. Truly skilled film making doesn’t need Outer Space or vampires to draw you in.
Black Swan is actually quite a good film to mention in relation to Whiplash. Both movies show ambitious young artists, prepared to go to any lengths to achieve greatness and both see them pushed forward by boorish instructors. Whiplash doesn’t have the trippy hallucinations and body horror of Natalie Portman’s dancing flick but the self destructive obsession is there in spades.
Miles Teller plays Andrew, a young musician just starting his first year at the prestigious Shaffer Music Academy. He quickly meets reputed tutor Terence Fletcher who he is desperate to impress. Teller gives a fantastic performance as the obsessed teen, slowly being consumed by his desire to be the best. He is totally convincing no matter the extreme levels he goes to and the drumming, which apparently he did himself, is literally breathtaking.
The attention isn’t really is on the protagonist though, certainly not in terms of the positive advance word on the film. The star of the show seems to be J.K Simmons as the teacher. Simmons’ Fletcher is an incredibly rude and bullying task master (almost unbelievably so but more on that later). He manipulates Andrew horrifically, constantly putting him through emotional and physical abuse, all of which clearly pushes the young man to bigger and better things. Mr Chips he is not.
In giving us this character Whiplash is one of those films that will generate conversation. Audiences will debate whether Fletcher’s hideous treatment of his students is justified if it does indeed inspire them to become something incredible. I have to say that there is no argument as far as I am concerned. No, it isn’t justified. It is barbaric and inexcusable.
Fletcher’s reasoning is also idiotic. It seems he has been inspired by some story, quite possibly apocryphal, about Charlie Parker having a cymbal thrown at his head by his band leader. Without this, he argues, the famous saxophonist would never have amounted to anything and now it is his job in turn to terrorise the potential out of fledgling musicians. As far as I am concerned this is a feeble and backward thinking excuse for sadism. It’s like asserting that foot binding makes Chinese girls pretty so let’s grab some bandages and start strapping.
To all intent and purposes Simmons is giving us an exaggerated version of his Jonah J. Jameson character from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. His performance in Whiplash feels only marginally more believable and I’m sorry but I didn’t quite buy it. There is no denying that the film is electric when he’s on screen but Teller’s is actually the better performance.
None of this stops Whiplash being an exhilarating watch though. Director/screenwriter Damien Chazelle has created a mesmerising movie and it is hard not to get swept along by the events on screen.
Actually, at the risk of being overly critical again, it is screenwriter Damien Chazelle that needs to be credited with the success of this film. Director Damien Chazelle is largely just along for the ride. The story and the performances are what makes it compelling and these go a long way to disguise the directing, which at best is pedestrian and at worst clichéd and jarring. I’m sorry but the jazz montages are painful and they almost kill the incredible final scene. A better director would have got a more balanced performance from Simmons too.
You do need a pretty high jazz tolerance to get through Whiplash but if you can it is well well worth your tempo.
The Ripley Factor:
No Bechdel points here. There are only three women in the film and they never meet, let alone talk about something other than men. There is nothing sexist here though, only two or three other characters register beyond the central duo as this is their battle.
Is this one for the kids?
Whiplash is rated 15 due to highly profane, torturous incivility and bleeding hands.