By Dominic Preston.
Whiplash takes the potentially staid and lifeless starting point of a jazz conservatory school, and from those grounds somehow wrestles out one of the most dynamic and kinetic films in recent years, and certainly one of the strongest depictions of music on film in memory. Every horn blast brings with it a quick cut, as the camera zips between instruments, performers and conductors, with the result that every performance feels more action-packed than Hollywood’s most explosive blockbusters.
Andrew (Miles Teller) is a first year drum student at the Shaffer Conservatory who attracts the attention of the notorious studio band conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Under Fletcher’s not-so-kindly tutelage, Andrew hopes to be “not just great – one of the greats,” and the film quickly secures itself as a tense exploration of the interplay between teacher and student, leaving the audience wondering just how far students should be pushed in the search for greatness.
Simmons has rightly attracted attention (and awards) for his electric portrayal of Fletcher. Firing off homophobic, misogynistic and racist barbs in the fine tradition of The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker, he belittles his students in the hope of nurturing talent, quoting an apocryphal story about Charlie Parker to support his extreme methods.
Teller gives an equally powerful performance though, and it’s a shame that he’s been so overshadowed by his co-star. His quiet determination and occasionally stinging resentment belie what it actually an impressively physical performance, as Andrew pushes its body to its utter limits.
Writer and director Damien Chazelle has drawn criticism from some directions for failing to respect the artistry of jazz, ignoring the genre’s spirit of improvisation. Whiplash doesn’t deny those aspects of jazz but simply sets them aside here in favour of the relentless practice and perfect technique required at the industry’s top level, drawing on his own music school background to do so.
The film isn’t quite perfect – it lurches dangerously close to melodrama for one short sequence, and has a romantic sideplot that never quite gels with the rest of the film’s relentless momentum, but these are minor distractions in the face of a physical, powerful piece of filmmaking. The film’s climactic sequence alone is nothing short of breathtaking – quite literally – and it’s hard to imagine a more phsyically arresting film coming along any time this year.
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