Ask the average punter if they’d rather watch a film about a jazz drummer or undergo a lobotomy, and they’ll go for the hole in the head faster than you can say ‘Buddy Rich.’ It’s not just the subject matter either - the central story of Whiplash might put people off too. Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is our jazz drummer enrolled at top music school The Schaffer Conservatory in New York. Neyman longs to become the core drummer of the band led by curmudgeonly conductor Terrence Fletcher (J.K Simmons). And that’s about it.
What happens if Neyman doesn’t make core? Well, he might just be benched, or, he might have to go play in a different prestigious band within the school. The horror, the horror. It’s the kind of compromise that we deal with on a daily basis without ceremony or without telling anyone it’s happened or, worse, without even realising it. The threat of having it pretty good instead of having it great doesn’t seem ripe for compelling cinema.
Whiplash should not be, but is absolutely, a hit. Just as the trailer does the film a disservice, any précis of the plot is a waste of time. The virtue of this film is in its execution. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, Whiplash is an example of an artist’s subtle vision borne out and served to completion.
Is it a contradiction to have a film about jazz that is so accessible? This may or may not be one for the jazz enthusiasts. I don’t know. I’ve never met one. All I know is that I loved it.
But Whiplash is a no-joy zone. Instead, music is a science that can be scrutinised and squeezed and perfected. You won’t leave this film and want to pick up the sticks. (5-6, put them back where you found them. 7-8, before it’s too late).
What lies at the dark heart of this movie is the power of ambition. Ambition is the double-edged sword that drives and corrupts. Not one or the other, but both at the same time. Neyman’s unbending desire to be one of ‘the greats’ borders on obsessive and then invades obsessive and lays siege to the capital of obsessive. On this quest, Neyman’s relationships with family, friends and his girlfriend are starved of oxygen. This is not an unforeseen consequence but an active choice.
For Neyman, being in Fletcher’s band is an essential step towards becoming ‘a great’. Naturally, it don’t come easy. Fletcher himself bears all the hallmarks of ambition not quite fulfilled. He is arrogant, world weary and yet still always searching, for what exactly, even he is not sure. Fuelled partly by frustration, partly by perfectionism, Fletcher bullies his band, exploiting the weaknesses of his students. To Fletcher, Neyman is nothing special- he’s just the new kid. Whereas Neyman considers Fletcher his adversary, his mentor and his salvation all at once.
J.K Simmons won the BAFTA for best supporting actor last night, and is, quite rightly, up for the Oscar. His cruel wit is musical. He hits the gaps, bends time. Every time you laugh you try to cram it back in your mouth knowing you shouldn’t have laughed. Too late. You laughed. You’re probably a bad person. In truth, Whiplash relies on the strength of both leads and newcomer Teller is a worthy match for Simmons. Both create characters that are not black or white. They are compelling and real. They are manipulators who will betray those around them to get what they want.
For a film about two Machiavellian manipulators, the plot turns upon one accident too many. These small coincidences and happenings push the story on significantly and on occasion it feels false. Also, spending more time with Neyman and his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) would have been no bad thing as their onscreen chemistry is excellent. Those longing for more rom-com scenes will find their calls unanswered, much like the phone calls made by the ‘non-great’, in Neyman’s eyes at least, Nicole.
That’s the takeaway from Whiplash: tunnel vision. Fletcher’s band travel cross-country to play for ribbons and trophies. They play in halls that are empty except for a handful of people because only an elite few are able to discern whether the band is great or not. There’s no regard for the general public and there’s certainly no responsibility to entertain. When the public do come along they are witnesses to something they cannot fully comprehend. Then there’s Teller’s dream. It’s all about being a name in a pantheon that the vast majority haven’t even heard of. He isn’t striving to create something beautiful or to affect his audience. Teller wants fame amongst enthusiasts. Is it a noble goal? It’s his goal and he will not stop in pursuit of it.
See this week's screening times for Whiplash here