Rushing. Dragging. Banging.
Rarely does a film inspire emotional conflict anywhere close to that which one engages in during Whiplash. Writer/director Damien Chazelle’s simple, yet tight-knit story of a young drummer in New York who’s determined to make it no matter what the personal cost, is the definition of truly emphatic, empathetic indie filmmaking. It wires up and presses start on your mind, your emotions, and your judgement, as J.K. Simmons’ narcissistic conductor, Terrence Fletcher, proceeds to literally lay a beat down on his protégé, Andrew Neimann – played by rising star Miles Teller – all in the name of practice, progress, and perfection. It’s a master class from both actors, with Teller excelling as the puppy dog drummer on the periphery of orchestral jazz, who makes you feel every beat, every blister, every drop of blood. Simmons has demonstrated his imposing, deeply frightening side before – as those who’ve seen HBO’s prison drama Oz will testify to – but this is truly a monstrous big screen performance, laced with the bile of a genuine psychotic tendency ever present behind his character’s belief that his way, and only his way, is the right way.
The fine-tuning of our two lead characters’ engrossing development is the key component in Chazelle’s edge-of-your-seat, edge-of-your-brain approach, and therein lies his harrowing concoction of emotional conflict. Neimann wants to be pushed, despite what it’s doing to him, despite what he has to suffer both physically and mentally, and in spite of what he becomes – a reckless, arrogant, narrow-minded stooge to Fletcher’s towering, destructive, but ultimately persuasive influence. And against our better judgement, we find ourselves rooting for the kid, wanting him to succeed if only to make the frustration and torture stop, to see if Fletcher’s recycled experiment of constant abuse, underpinned with just enough bullshit praise and a sick flair for the traumatic dramatic, will pay off in the end. It’s a classic subconscious character arc mind fuck from Chazelle, as the real genius is how the audience is never once allowed to settle on an emotion toward either character. Fletcher is possibly the biggest bastard you’ll see on screen this year, yet he’s a darkly humorous chap. You find yourself warming to him, liking him, vindicating his methods on the grounds of silver screen logic; that this is all leading somewhere positive. Hollywood this is not, however, and by the end you’re so fraught with anxiety due to his potentially unnerving intensions and unpredictable limits, that a conventional emotional state is no longer an option.
Whilst the performances lead the show, the picture is brought together by some stunning technical input. Chazelle keeps us holed up in claustrophobic, underground environments, reflecting the increasingly dependent, all-or-nothing attitude Neimann takes to his drumming as he becomes trapped within the impossibly long and forever dangerous looming shadow of his teacher. The outside world is sacrificed and resorts to fighting back whenever Neimann tries to interact with it, eventually draining his adrenaline and forcing him to return to the murky, forever-uncertain dwellings below the bustling streets of New York in order to start again. Beautifully filmed, no shot is wasted as Chazelle keeps us up close and personal at all times, implementing quite frankly glorious lighting and colours, moody one minute and vibrant the next. The editing is pretty much perfect, never rushing, and certainly never dragging. Tom Cross matches shots to beats and applies ever intense, but always tone-appropriate pacing throughout, culminating in the armrest gripping rent-a-car sequence. The music within provides the soundtrack, creating an organic jazz feel from which the drums are projected as a visual cue to complement their place as an audial plot device, all tish-boom-pah throughout.
There will no doubt be plenty of sufficient uproar should the film fail to earn the Academy Awards many feel it deserves (Simmons in particular, although Chazelle deserves huge credit for his screenplay and can probably feel a little hard done by for missing out on a Best Director nod), and of course there will be the usual pointless stiff upper lip articles about how jazz, jazz drumming and jazz this/jazz that were either misinterpreted, misrepresented, or factually inaccurate. But seriously, fuck all that. It’s a great film that gets right inside your head without even a hint of pretention – in fact the subject matter can only increase awareness of jazz and encourage more to take up the sticks, something I’ll always support – and word of mouth will see it through as a classic regardless of what it wins at the Samuel Goldwyn next month. For now, all of that should be ignored. I would advise against even watching the trailer. Instead, I suggest everyone take the time to see it on the big screen while you can, and to judge for yourself.
To just have fun.