Ferocious, electric and unrelenting, Simmons and Teller never miss a beat in Damien Chazelle’s phenomenal second feature Whiplash.
Rushing and Draggingby Dave O’Flanagan
On cursory examination, the jazz music subject matter of Damien Chazelle’s latest film could easily be described as esoteric or niche. Jazz is that mysterious and unwieldy cousin of mainstream pop music that many of us would avoid sharing an empty lift with. The pure and unadulterated genius of Chazelle’s film is that it gives us an ‘in’ to this often underappreciated world in Andrew Neiman. Whiplash sits you down on the slightly faded leather-worn sweat-damp stool of the first drummer position of the Shaffer Conservatory jazz orchestra. It compels you to squirm awkwardly as J.K. Simmons’ terrifyingly imposing and ferocious Terrence Fletcher’s vitriolic spit peppers your wide-eyed and aghast face. Jazz is merely the backbeat accompaniment to a film whose orchestra features fear on bass, tension on saxophone and obsession on trumpet. Temporarily nurturing your attention and then pinning it against the wall for 107 minutes, Chazelle’s film is a tight and excruciatingly well-composed cinematic tour de force.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a 19-year old jazz drummer who has just been accepted into the best music school in the United States, the Shaffer Conservatory. Determined to become one of the greats of jazz drumming, an impromptu audition with revered conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) elevates Neiman to alternate drummer for the school’s orchestra. Initially supportive and nurturing to Neiman’s inexperience, Fletcher’s abusive methods of mentorship being to take their toll. In an effort to secure the first drummer position, Neiman breaks up with his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) and tirelessly spends his spare time memorising and practising the orchestra’s set list for competition. Promoted and demoted from first drummer on Fletcher’s every whim, as well as enduring the conductor’s fury, a fuse is lit within Neiman that threatens to end his career in music and potentially much more.
Revelling in Mark Twain’s famous mantra of “write what you know”, Damien Chazelle knows jazz, but he also has insight into the abject fear and dread inherent in making the grade professionally. The young Rhode Island native was himself a jazz drummer in High School who suffered at the hands of a similarly authoritarian bandleader who aspired to the sonic end product of a professional band. Chazelle’s first film, Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench was a soaring black-and-white bohemian musical, a celebration of jazz and the joy of music. Whiplash is an altogether different beast – a gnarled, seething, agitated monster of a film that highlights the pain and anguish that the pursuit of perfection often demands.
Miles Teller’s performance as Andrew is the turntable on which Chazelle’s film spins. His natural charisma as an actor makes Andrew’s conviction, ambition and eventual defiance totally believable. Despite the best efforts of his father (a comforting Paul Reiser) to prevent an inexorable meltdown, the battle for Andrew’s spirit is lost and won at the drum kit against a legion of vitriol. Chazelle builds a character we like and then tears him down at the hands of his tormentor, Fletcher – each barbed insult is acutely felt by the audience. The visceral impact of Fletcher’s abominable physical and mental abuse is felt as keenly as it is seen and heard, and Teller’s sweat, blood and tears are as convincing as they are hard-hitting. Neiman’s defiance and obsession propels him uncontrollably to the films conclusion which makes you both question and admire the double-edged sword of ambition.
The genius of Simmons’ character is that ultimately – despite the systematic degradation coupled with his monstrous alpha-male posturing – he’s obviously human. Overlaying flashes of this humanity like perfectly timed contradictory splashes of cymbal, Chazelle consistently forces us to question our assessment of him. In a particularly memorable scene a compassionate “a little trouble there, you’re rushing” is quickly followed by a chair flung in the direction of his first drummer. In a moment of seemingly bare sincerity, Fletcher shares the fate of one of his charges, and while later his version emerges as half-truth, in that moment we see a flicker of humanity like a crack in his facade. Simmons’ pokes and prods our anxieties like a master conductor, with high tempo insults matched by a hugely commanding physical performance. His incisive and scathing attacks are often hilarious, enabling the audience stabs of relief from the unrelenting tension.
The nerve-wracking tension of Whiplash is whisked along with an edit from Tom Cross that perpetuates the sense of electricity that sparks between the main characters. The sense of calm and warmth in the opening act, as Andrew enjoys cinema visits with father Jim, are starkly contrasted to the jagged cuts of the Shaffer studio sessions where he is pushed beyond all reasonable mental and physical limits. Almost paradoxically, Sharone Meir’s cinematography bathes the hallowed halls of Shaffer Conservatory in warm, reverential lighting, the amber tones of the session rooms evoking a higher more consecrated purpose.
Boasting not one, but two momentous performances from Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, Damien Chazelle’s film is a nervous energy and fear fuelled whirlwind of freneticism. Simmons’ monstrous performance recalls a slightly more human version of Gny. Sgt. Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. Outside of the rapid-fire acerbic and vitriolic insults, Simmons’ tour de force has more depth than the crash, bang and wallop of a sociopathic mentor. Owing to Chazelle’s consummately composed script, the clever and off-kilter emotional beats of Terrence Fletcher muddy the waters of your perceptions. By the same token, Teller’s hugely physical and intricate performance as Andrew evolves from naive youthful exuberance to abject fear, inheriting a sense of Fletcher’s hubris along the way. This symbiotic relationship ebbs and flows and as Andrew drums closer to realising his dreams, the tension with Fletcher explodes in a Frankenstein’s monster style catharsis.
Whiplash is released on 16th January 2015 in the UK