Damien Chazelle’s sophomore directorial effort Whiplash (which follows Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) has caused quite a stir already in critics and festival circles, and by the film’s end it is not difficult to see why. Here we see big, compelling, but not even remotely attractive performances from two actors, in their characters’ skin, playing a brutal game of one-upmanship in a terrifying battle over Jazz music as an art form.
Indeed, the relationship between young drumming protégée Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) and his unforgivingly tough mentor Terence Fletcher (J.K Simmons) is a difficult watch at the best of times but it is equally a thrilling one. There is a real permeating sense of terror elicited by Simmons’ performance as the unrelenting band leader – at a top east-coast privileged music conservatoire – who over the course insults and attempts to maim his students, in an attempt to motivate the truly committed and extinguish those who don’t have the same fire as him. Meanwhile, the initially sympathetic Neyman becomes some kind of monster himself – adapting to the punishing perfectionism of his tutor – and turning into an equally obsessive beast in order to be “one of the greats”, like his hero Buddy Rich; he is expertly played by the young Teller.
It’s not surprising then that both are being tipped for Oscar nominations (and stand a strong chance of winning), given the visceral torture one puts through the other to achieve perfection, through hours of tedious practicing. As a musician myself who works in a highly distinguished music conservatoire, Chazelle captures the tedium and pain of rehearsal expertly well, ratcheting up the tension with Simmons’ terrifying ogre.
Whiplash is not without its problems however. At times the narrative clunks along just a little too conveniently: the use of foreshadowing and an off-putting “recap of everything you’ve seen so far” 3rd act plot point. Even more troubling is Simmons’ character as a homophobic, misogynistic bully. The repeated use of the word “faggot” amongst other charming terms, as well as repeated attempts to push Neyman to the brink (by repeatedly using the mother who abandoned him) in less than pleasant ways, gets a bit too cruel for entertainment’s sake.
While undoubtedly there are highly strung, highly driven people out there who use horrendous language and get away with it, it becomes problematic when Fletcher comes off as humorous. Worse so, when he appears vaguely heroic; he is given the opportunity to become sympathetic and redemptive, even after the audience has discovered that he may well have driven a previous student to suicide. The film is such a difficult and exciting watch, precisely because the two lead characters are so consistently ghastly.
But the constant undercurrent thread of the music itself is what underpins and drives Whiplash towards its thrilling conclusion. The film opens with a drum roll increasing in velocity with terrific force, setting the tone for large sways of the experience. The film is at its best when it’s highlighting the excruciating work it takes to become the best and the closing few moments are edge-of-your-seat stuff. Chazelle is careful to not give too much of the music away until this point – only highlighting titbits and the often exhausting rehearsals – so when we finally see the finished performance, complete with a new found sense of optimism, it is truly rousing, immersive stuff that captures what it must feel like to witness the real-life greats.