Whiplash (2014) Film Review

A troubling relationship develops between a music student and his teacher. Whiplash is a compelling and focused piece of cinema that plays out to a jazz beat.

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Starring J.K Simmons as a teacher who abuses his power and uses fear to drive his students to attain that ever elusive perfection, Whiplash explores the relationship between a student (Miles Teller) and his teacher. It’s a compelling watch with intense performances and moments of excellent jazz.

From director Damien Chazelle, a one time aspiring drummer, comes the brilliant Whiplash, a film laden with pathos and delivered with style. The narrative follows Andrew (Teller) who is a young and naive student with dreams of making it in the world of jazz. He has a place at a well regarded and competitive music school and he has the opportunity of trying out for the jazz band led by J.K. Simmons’ Terence Fletcher.

In Whiplash everybody is driven to be the best and it means that at every moment Andrew has to battle to keep his seat at the drums. This isn’t made any easier by Fletcher’s hair trigger temper and right from the start a manipulative and abusive relationship develops. Andrew is under constant threat from Fletcher’s drill sergeant methods and this intense relationship forms the central concern of Whiplash.

Jazz training montage

In essence it’s an intense Rocky style narrative with Andrew being pushed to excel by Fletcher. It’s a training montage for jazz drumming and our drummer hero is forced to bend to Fletcher’s will or break in two. Andrew practices religiously and he constantly seeks the approval of Fletcher. But Fletcher is recalcitrant and Andrew is pushed ever further from anything close to praise or empathy.

The cinematography and the visual aspects of Whiplash deliver darkened rooms, carefully lit exteriors, and the focus is always on the music. The mise en scene reflects this too and Andrew’s room is bare with white walls and blue tacked peeling posters – he even moves the bed out of his room to make space for his drum set. In fact everything in Andrew’s life is put on hold in pursuit of his dreams. An embryonic but promising relationship with a young female student ends abruptly so that Andrew can keep his focus.

Whiplash-ScreamTeller plays Andrew with passion and his performance is pitch perfect. Andrew literally bleeds for his craft and he has a clear aptitude and talent albeit still raw. Fletcher clearly sees this but his attempts to push Andrew only seem to hurt him both psychologically and physically. J.K. Simmons too has a remarkable turn as the overbearing and sometimes terrifyingly abusive Fletcher and together Simmons and Teller carve a strong emotional centre for what is ostensibly a simple plot.

Perhaps the best element of Whiplash though is the music itself. There is a constant drum beat (like in Birdman) and the band’s practicing sequences are studies of jazz in minutiae. The film itself builds, experiments, and its form is markedly similar to that of a jazz solo. Sometimes it veers towards self indulgence, but mostly it sticks to its own beat and has some startling moments where everything seems to align perfectly. It’s a film that manages to maintain a tense consistent drive forwards and in its simplicity it shows just how little is needed to create a truly great drama.

A refreshing portrayal of the jazz genre

The finale is a cathartic moment full of self respect, a truly inspired drum solo, and a moment of synchronicity that will subvert your feelings about the first two acts. Whiplash does for jazz music what Mozart in the Jungle did for classical music and it reviews a musical discipline often considered as out dated or perhaps less than exciting. It updates the tropes associated with jazz music and there are no cigarettes, sex, or drugs. Instead it takes places in a prestigious music college and the focus is always on one very specific thing – the music.

There’s a sense of integrity to the proceedings and both Teller and Fletcher could be seen as purists. Together they share not just a love but an obsession with the jazz genre. A telling moment involves Fletcher saying to Teller that the most damaging phrase in the English language is: “Good enough.” The best thing about Whiplash is the fact that its resists that label too.

In Whiplash Andrew is a single child and his dad is portrayed as a high school teacher who is always proud of his son no matter what. Fletcher on the other hand will not settle for second best and praise isn’t something that he ever doles out. Andrew and his dad become ever more estranged as his relationship with Fletcher deepens. Andrew is left with a choice: the humble and safe world of his father or the more dangerous but potentially promising jazz infused reality of Fletcher’s.

Director Damien Chazelle avoids any sort of didactic finger pointing and instead he leaves the films finale open to debate. This provides plenty of scope for discussions on the relationship between a student and a teacher and just how far is too far when it comes to driving a student with potential to excel.

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Whiplash is a riveting film, tense and driven, and its dramatic narrative is delivered with outstanding performances and an excellent jazz score. The tempo is inexorable and the film riffs on its central premise with convincing dialogue and a love of jazz that’s infectious.

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