Film of the week: Whiplash

Drive and discipline combust at jazz-drumming boot camp.

Calum Marsh
Updated:

from our February 2015 issue

Slave to the rhythm: Whiplash

Slave to the rhythm: Whiplash

Andrew (Miles Teller), the hero of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, is an ambitious fellow. Indeed, he aspires to be no less than the greatest living jazz drummer, and he thus devotes himself, with monk-like rigour, to its gruelling practice.

But it takes two to seize mastery. Andrew has a tutor: Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), conductor at an illustrious New York conservatory, whose approach to higher education seems rather like an extended tribute to R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. In Andrew, it soon transpires, Fletcher has found an ideal pupil, as eager to endure pain for the sake of his art as Fletcher is to mete it out, and before long the two are enjoying a daily training regime whose cruelty would make a sadomasochist blush.

Fletcher hardly seems sated by Andrew’s persistent improvements, and is no less barbarous after an inspired performance than after a dismal one; and Chazelle, training a keen eye on the proceedings, seems to delight in the spectacle of relentless punishment.

He may be on to something there. Simmons, who played a similarly cantankerous authority figure in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films, is an exemplary shouter, and he gets a lot of mileage here out of a performance style that (in keeping with the jazz theme) risks sounding one-note. Much of the pleasure afforded by the film is derived from Fletcher’s exhilaratingly virulent tirades, which boast the same amusing theatricality that made Peter Capaldi’s tongue-lashings the centrepiece of the BBC’s The Thick of It. “You are a worthless pansy-ass,” Fletcher barks at a teary Andrew in the middle of practice, “who is now weeping and slobbering all over my drum-set like a nine-year-old girl.” That’s about the only line suitable for print.

Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash (2014)

It isn’t all amusement, of course: Fletcher’s methods prove too extreme to remain uninterrogated, and soon the film conspires to pose rather more serious questions and face up to more serious themes. Chazelle’s ruminations on the price of greatness don’t amount to much: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful,” Fletcher observes, “than ‘good job’” – a bit of fortune-cookie insight that the film welcomes us to take or leave. (There’s also an apocryphal anecdote about Charlie Parker and a near-decapitation meant to arouse more reflection than it musters.)

More frustrating still is Chazelle’s tendency to defer to screenwriting convention for the sake of a more ‘well-rounded’ (read: more clichéd) film: a perfunctory girlfriend destined to be discarded on Andrew’s road to jazz mastery is an especially tiresome concession to a Hollywood template, but even scenes with Andrew’s father feel like so much fat.

Where, one wonders, are the rigour and discipline so righteously advocated by the characters? Had Fletcher been leaning over Chazelle’s shoulder in the writing room, snapping at every mistake, such lapses of judgement might have been corrected.

Nevertheless, Whiplash ends on a high note: Andrew’s dazzling solo performance before a sold-out JVC festival crowd, with Fletcher egging him on. It’s here that the film settles into precisely the right groove, with its two leads and the practice that binds them – and no moral lessons or supporting characters to get in the way.

 

In the February 2015 issue of Sight & Sound

Slave to the rhythm

Whiplash is a film about the struggles of a young would-be jazz drummer that took Sundance, and then Cannes, by storm. Nick James takes five perspectives on the film and talks to its fresh-faced director Damien Chazelle.

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