Whiplash (2014): Blood on the high hat


Directed by: Damien Chazelle Written by: Damien Chazelle Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist

The blurb says: “Andrew Neyman is an ambitious young jazz drummer, single-minded in his pursuit to rise to the top of his elite east coast music conservatory. Plagued by the failed writing career of his father, Andrew hungers day and night to become one of the greats. Terence Fletcher, an instructor equally known for his teaching talents as for his terrifying methods, leads the top jazz ensemble in the school. Fletcher discovers Andrew and transfers the aspiring drummer into his band, forever changing the young man’s life. Andrew’s passion to achieve perfection quickly spirals into obsession, as his ruthless teacher continues to push him to the brink of both his ability-and his sanity”
My verdict: Whiplash is a tale of passion, obsession and determination, which, it turns out, aren’t always good things. J.K. Simmons take on Fletcher is by turns awe-inspiring and terrifying, you can see why the musicians he works with want to earn his approval as, to quote The Talented Mr Ripley, “when he turns his attention to you it’s like the sun shines on you, and it’s glorious. And then he forgets you and it’s very, very cold.” Fletcher is about absolutes. Either you are at the point of perfection or you should give up.
First year student Andrew becomes the focal point of Fletcher’s determination, which in turns fuels his own obsession, as he blocks out everything else in his life to try and match the achievements of the great drumming legends. We see the pair slowly begin to unravel and the practice room becomes a battleground.
Whiplash is masterful is making something that could have been very, very dull (jazz drumming) not only hugely interesting, but tense and and thrilling. Even those of us who are not trained musicians begin to appreciate what a hugely complex art form jazz is.
Oh Jesus fucking God. You’re not one of those single tear people are you? Do I look like a double fucking rainbow to you?- Fletcher
Fletcher’s repeated mantra to failing students, “Not my tempo” is delivered at times in a soft and reassuring way, and at other times is made to sound like a death threat. Fletcher is an extremely complex character, which is cleverly portrayed through the writing and Simmons excellent performance. You hate him, but would want him to like you.
Andrew, too, is a puzzle. There is a part of all of us that would like to be that driven and single minded in our ambitions, but Whiplash also shows the fine line between determination, obsession and full blown mental illness. Part Rocky, part Full Metal Jacket, with the anti-Dead-Poets-Society teacher at the helm, Whiplash is well-written, well-directed and well-acted, elevating it to more than the sum of its parts.
I never thought I’d enjoy a film filled with a jazz band practising the same bars of music over and over again, but with the repetition comes punishing tensions that you rarely see on film.
A surprisingly complex and affecting tale of jazz and obsession.
8 out of 10
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