Whiplash **** (out of five)
Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is an extremely confident, stylish, brash and superbly crafted melodrama that manages, in its contained story, to examine ambition, elitism, bullying, musicianship, scholarship and many other underlying themes. It is taut, rigorous and menacing.
Andrew (Miles Teller, The Next Big Thing) is a drumming student at a fictional, Juilliard-esque music school in New York City – the best music school in the world, we are told, and, for the purposes of the story, have no reason not to believe. Andrew is invited into the prestigious Studio Band by its mythic leader Fletcher (JK Simmons, whose CV is one of the most wonderful in screen acting); Fletcher is a had taskmaster, to say the least, and Andrew is his new toy.
It’s a very original film, with resonances ranging from Black Swan to the first act of Full Metal Jacket. Our sympathies are constantly being undermined; Andrew is obviously extremely talented, but his ego doesn’t know how to form itself yet (he’s 19), and Fletcher may be the best thing or the worst thing in the world for him. At times the discourse really manages to reach profound examinations of the nature of artistic genius and how it should be treated – and treat others. Although the action is mainly confined to one room and to a few main characters, the cinematography is exquisite, and the many scenes of musicians at play – particularly Andrew at the drum kit (Teller does his own drumming, at least in wide shots) – are astonishingly well constructed visually and sonically. It a joy to behold and should be enjoyed in a good cinema.
It is also, for much of the first two acts, quite a difficult watch, particularly if you’ve ever been the victim of bullying from an authority figure – a teacher, a boss, a parent. Indeed, if you’ve actually been traumatised at all by such a figure, this is probably not the movie for you – it’s too good at what it’s up to, and you might end up another of Fletcher’s victims. Likewise, there will be people for whom the film is just too brutish, nasty and cold, or who can’t relate to either of the lead characters, both of whom are pretty unlikeable. The experience is flinty and sharp and grim and shifty and could drive sensitive souls from the room – in this respect the film acts as Fletcher does, brow-beating us to see if we can stand the heat. And if we can, what does that say about us? Anything good? Or just that we can be cold too?
The film is somewhat unfairly balanced. We at least understand where Andrew is coming from – we have very important scenes with him and his loving, single father (Paul Reiser), but Fletcher begins and ends as furry: he’s respected as a teacher, but can he play? Does he have anything resembling a family (or friends, for that matter)? If this was Black Swan, it would be asked: “Does he actually exist?” (It isn’t, and he does).
Chazelle was born in 1985, and his previous work tends to be concerned with jazz and its place within a high-art, New-York hierarchy: you can live in the sophisticated world of certain fields if you’re good enough: if not, forget it. For Andrew, his placement within Fletcher’s class is life or death, and that’s imperative: if it wasn’t, he’d just try something else, dude. There’s something gloriously refreshing about a film finding jazz drumming instruction this thrilling. It’s also just an excellent film – if you can handle it. It’s tough.