VOD film review: Whiplash
James R | On 30, May 2015
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons
Jazz is all about timing. Many people think it’s solely made up on the spot, any-which-way-you-fancy improv, but a part of it is also written down. There are chord progressions, standards, time signatures. If you want to make it over the top – to become really, truly great – you first have to understand the rules of engagement. The question is how you go about it.
No one knows the law of the battlefield like Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). The hardened conductor lords it over Shaffer Conservatory’s best big band with a fist of brass. Brass covered in blood. So when young pupil Andrew (Miles Teller) manages to sit on the group’s coveted drum stool, he’s determined to stay there – and Fletcher’s determined to make him earn it.
How? Practice. You need to devote time so you can keep time – something that most films about music seem to forget. Usually, biopics present us with famous musicians who go through personal trials and tribulations, only to emerge the other side a fully-formed artist. It’s a treat, then, to see a film about the practical nature of music, one that plays out like the messy underside of that artificial drum; the side with the snare on it.
“Are you rushing or dragging?” Fletcher interrogates Andrew, as they rehearse the titular track by Hank Levy. He asks over and over, like a drill sergeant auditioning for Full Metal Jacket: The Musical.
Simmons is terrifying, a wide-eyed brute whose foul-mouthed insults are as hilarious as they are intimidating. Anyone who has ever had a bullying music teacher will recognise the fear of playing a wrong note and the disappointment of both letting your mentor down and, worse, yourself. But there is a universal intrigue to that process, the unseen way in which talent develops in any field. In Whiplash’s hands, that’s arranged as a thrilling piece of physical, human drama.
Teller, who can play the drums in real life, is sensational as the eager student, a boy so focused that he shuts out all other concerns: family tensions and romantic dates (watch out for upcoming Supergirl Melissa Benoist) are all ignored by him and the blinkered script follows suit. The only thing that matters here is the music.
Grimacing, laughing and sweating profusely, the young star is astonishing to watch in action – not only acting while playing the drums, but appearing out of sync believably enough to spark Fletcher’s wrath. Together, the pair form a dazzling duet, riffing off each other. All the while, their relationship changes key, from nasty humour to just plain nasty.
All the while, director Damien Chazelle keeps tempo – a breakneck metronome that, like Justin Hurwitz’s score (including a selection of standards, such as Caravan), is a masterclass in precision. As Andrew’s technique gets tighter, pushed by this monster with a manuscript, Chazelle’s camera shoots across the kit, bouncing off the hi-hat and toms with its own fascinating rhythm.
Fletcher, he is proud to tell us, labours under the (misunderstood) legend of Charlie Parker, who was given the push he needed to become Bird by Jo Jones lobbing a cymbal at his head. Isn’t he missing the point altogether? After all, jazz needs soul as well as skill. It helps if all your body parts are intact too.
The director skilfully modulates the tone from unnerving comedy to sceptical horror, but the real crescendo occurs within the last movement, a blistering dash to the closing bar that finally throws all that rigid conducting out of the window and goes for a freewheeling rim-shot to the gut.
Mention jazz to most people and they’ll switch off, dismissing it as made-up noise. Whiplash, though, brings the house down every time. It explores abuse as much as music, but it’s still all about timing. It doesn’t miss a beat.