BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL: Taking the festival circuit by storm since its Sundance premiere in January, Whiplash is starting to feel like the underdog that could go far with its crowd-pleasing intensity. On the surface, it’s a gritty story about a brutal student-mentor relationship that oversteps boundaries. Underneath, it’s a piercing examination of the psyche of unbridled ambition. Whiplash is a film that stops at nothing. As a result, it’s the best film I’ve seen in years, and I say that without hesitation. This is a film that resonates on every single level and every moment counts. If writer/director Damien Chazelle was striving for greatness as much as his protagonist, then he has achieved it.
Miles Teller, who’s been steadily growing on me since The Spectacular Now, stars as Andrew Neyman, a 19-year-old aspiring jazz drummer who’s pushed and inspired by the abuse and aspirations of his school band leader Fletcher, played by the ferocious J.K. Simmons like we’ve never seen him before. Chazelle has described the film as an origin story to the jazz musicians of the golden age, and it thrives on the myths of jazz heroes such as Charlie Parker. They’re urgently looking for the next Parker, in search of perfection. But with that comes a great irony. The music genre is known as one for freedom of expression but here the jazz is soulless and mechanical, and that clouds the ethical judgment of the characters.
Even so, Fletcher is a man who can tell if you have the right tempo within a bar. Although most of the audience for the film may not know much about music including myself, you get a feel for what he’s looking for and when someone’s wrong even if you don’t know why. Simmons is as good as they say he is. He’s a force of nature, with a terrifying presence that incites the fear Bryan Cranston achieved with the peak of his Walter White. But it’s not a one-note performance. Simmons is still subversive with moments of weakness, insecurity, approachability, and he also sometimes brings in the lightness he’s known for in other roles with Jason Reitman, exec producer here.
Even though he’s an unlikeable character with nothing nice to say, he’s still somewhat endearing and enigmatic, much like R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. This demasculinisation through a barrage of insults is a theme explored in Whiplash and it argues whether it’s a crime or an ‘ends justifying the means’ factor of life. It’s not just a music film, but also one that adapts to the elements of sports training, war at boot camp and biopic genres with the way it frames its elements. Fletcher is representative of the devil on our shoulders that yells at us that we’re not good enough and that symbolic idea resonates deeply for me. His poisonous words are more a part of Andrew’s psyche than legitimate coaching techniques.
What grabs me about the film is its discussion on artistic perfection, and especially in these intimate and rough sequences of practicing. What is objectively great in art? When is it good enough, and why? It toes a fascinating line. That’s why drumming is such an interesting choice for the film to explore because it’s so instinctive. Drummers have to make decisions within a fraction of a second and talent can only take you so far. The roaring beat in Whiplash puts your heart in your throat. Teller’s performance as Andrew is terrific, one to match Simmons.
Chazelle is committed on expressing the physicality of drumming and Teller captures it exhaustively without feeling contrived. It’s the virtuosity of the writing that allows us into Andrew’s head however. It’s a long road to the top, but the script makes the right decision to allow him to revel in the little moments of success, but then to immediately test him in surprising and involving ways. Each turn of the story shapes his expectations and ambitions and then escalates it to the right point.
While the film is a gripping experience nonetheless, in retrospect perhaps it is too bitingly cynical. It does suggest that you have to be deprived of a meaningful relationship to achieve your goals. It does appear to be very anti-positive reinforcement, but perhaps it’s merely a statement on the abundant sheltering that the latest generation is enduring. Whiplash is refreshing to see, we all know we wouldn’t be resilient enough to take that kind of punishment so it’s cathartic to watch Andrew go through it all and see how far he’ll go. His frustration, regrets, fear and rage with himself cuts to the core of the human condition as he’s pushed further and further.
The technical aspects of the film help it become so stimulating with dizzying closeups tightly edited together and its the stark orange tinted cinematography. It’s thoroughly impressive that the film was shot in only 19 days for them to get shots so immaculately timed and performed with all those complicated movements. There’s a refreshing brevity to the film with its sharp atmosphere, but it’s so rich in emotion, psychological tension and personal subtext. It neither rushes nor drags, on paper nor on screen.
It really is a film that lingers in your mind for days, nagging you, like Fletcher over your shoulder. Maybe it’ll continue to linger for weeks. I hope so too, especially for Oscar voters. It seems that J.K. Simmons is building momentum to be a lock for Best Supporting Actor at this point (at the press conference when Chazelle was asked about Oscar potential he muttered under his breath modestly ‘I don’t know’ and Simmons gave the briefest hint of a smirk – a knowing smirk). He’s the type of actor they’re just waiting to shower with love and the type of performance that doesn’t miss a beat.
Hopefully this won’t be a situation like 2011’s Beginners where a great film gets recognized for only one of its many great parts. Some editing and screenplay nominations would be thoroughly deserved too. Fortunately Teller is working with Chazelle on his next film, they’ll make a great team. However, Whiplash isn’t just a best of year film, nor best of decade. It approaches best of all-time worthy with its identifiable themes of meticulous work ethics, fulfilling aspirations, resilience of the soul, and knowing when to no longer measure yourself to your mentor. I’ll take this film with me for a while.