If music be the food of great cinema, then Damien Chazelle’s note-perfect study of the human cost of aspiring to greatness is a rich feast indeed.
Whiplash lives up to its name by snapping the viewer back and forth with an intensity as ferocious as J.K Simmons’ demonic black-clad conductor Terence Fletcher.
The crucible of sound and fury that is the Shaffer Conservatory music school makes Fame‘s Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School look like kindergarten, while the complex relationship between Fletcher and gifted jazz drummer student Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) has the air of Frankenstein and his monster.
Fletcher at one point states to Andrew: “There are no two words more harmful to the English language than ‘good job’.” Fletcher’s style of teaching (if that’s what you can call it) is to bully and excoriate those he deems worthy of interest in order to, so he claims, unlock the greatness within them.
His drill instructor approach terrifies many of the students in his elite class, but for Andrew it propels him to the next level and soon every waking moment is taken up with obsessively refining his talent in the hope of winning Fletcher’s approval.
The story behind how someone becomes great in their chosen field has long captivated filmmakers who, like most of us, have a morbid fascination with the price that is often paid to reach the very top. While we marvel at the skill they display and the accomplishments they make, the human cost can be terrible and it this we are drawn to.
One of the more striking examples in recent years was Darren Aronofsky’s superb Black Swan, in which Natalie Portman’s ballet dancer slowly loses her grip on reality as she strives for artistic perfection.
Whiplash may not be as weirdly horrific as that movie, but it shines just a harsh a spotlight on its protagonist, whose growing arrogance and unhealthy determination to succeed at all costs make us question our sympathy for him at the hands of Fletcher.
The way he treats love interest Nicole (Melissa Benoist) is revealing, particularly during their first date when he reacts disdainfully to her admission that she doesn’t yet have her whole life mapped out in front of her. The same goes for his father (played by Paul Reiser), who is also a teacher but more of the ‘good job’ school. Andrew’s reaction to his dad during a dinner scene involving family friends is also telling in that it reflects the influence Fletcher is having.
That said, there’s no denying the commitment Andrew has to his craft, especially in the film’s near-wordless final reel; a gladiatorial battle of wits between master and student that is one of the most electrifying and exhilarating scenes of the year. Some critics have accused it of being too manipulative, but it’s in keeping with the characters with whom we’ve spent the previous 90 minutes.
Teller treads a very fine line between unlikable and sympathetic and is utterly convincing behind the drums. For a movie such as this to work, you have to believe the actor is actually playing the instrument in question and in Teller’s case nary a shred of doubt exists.
As good as Teller is, however, Simmons is out of this world. It’s a part any seasoned actor would love to sink their teeth into, but Simmons makes it his own and imbues Fletcher with an unpredictability that’s frankly mesmirising.
Whiplash is one of the discoveries of the year and should not be missed. Good job? Great job more like.