Thursday 16 October 2014

Whiplash (2014) - Damien Chazelle

There comes a point in every musician’s career when they reach a crossroads: do you push yourself that bit further to become the best you can be, or do you give up?  What is it that drives us towards perfection?  Does practice really make perfect?

Whiplash is a film that explores the idea of fear as a motivator.  We’ve all had that teacher (whether in music or not) who scares you into silence and paralysis.  For some of us it’s a deterrent; for others it pushes us towards achievement.  Director Damien Chazelle captures this in a film of unparalleled intensity that deserves plenty of Oscar nominations next year.

This is an old-meets-new depiction of New York City, juxtaposing cool icy modernism with the dazzling warmth of the limelight.  Jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) is in his first year at music conservatory where he is invited to join the core jazz band, led by conductor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).  An utter perfectionist, Fletcher leads the band with military precision, bullying the musicians through physical and verbal abuse.  In one scene he dismisses a trombonist purely because he was unsure about his tuning.  Yet in Andrew he’s met his match.  Inspired by the jazz greats, Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich especially, Andrew aspires to be a legend, to the detriment of his personal relationships.  He’s unable to hold a girlfriend, his arrogance destroys his family relationships and he sulks around the corridors without any friends.  Fletcher simply wants to push his students beyond what’s expected of them, yet his methods are highly questionable.  For him, “good job” are the two most harmful words in the English language.  In today’s instant fame-obsessed world, Whiplash is a film that highlights the passion and hard work needed to achieve celebrity status – whatever the cost.

As Fletcher, Simmons is the embodiment of pure evil.  This is a terrifying, tyrannical performance that haunts long after the credits – perhaps the greatest screen villain of the year.  His duplicitous, manipulative nature is equally captivating yet horrifying.  One minute he’s lulling the musicians into a false sense of security with kind words, the next he’s using emotional tactics, horrendous insults and physical abuse to instil total fear.  With a single, slight hand movement he has complete control over the musicians, the camera and the audience – he is truly conducting the drama.  There’s plenty of black humour too: “just relax” he coos to Andrew with a wry smile.  Yet he’s not an entirely unsympathetic character.  There’s undoubtedly a certain noble integrity to his single-mindedness and his passion.  It’s his methods that are under scrutiny.

The Faustian parallels are clear, with Andrew selling his soul to the demonic, sadistic Fletcher in order to become the best drummer he can be.  The chemistry between the two actors is highly charged, each a formidable foil to the other.  That Teller actually played the drums himself is a remarkable achievement, but in a film where practice really does make perfect, his physicality and endurance is astonishing.  With the film completed in just 19 days, his exhaustion is tangible.

Further, this is a film that emphasises the physicality of musicianship and the rigorous discipline required rather than mental genius.  The dynamic camera is edited to every beat and pulse of the music, extreme close-ups visualising literally the blood, sweat and tears of performance.  As such, Chazelle’s cinematography absolutely heightens the tension.  Like the hypnotic drum roll that opens the film, Whiplash builds intensely through an almighty narrative crescendo before firing like a machine gun in its climactic final scene.  It's a battle of nerves: with a distinct lack of dialogue, emotion pours from every drum beat and acute facial expression.

This is simply an extraordinary piece of cinema, combining music and visual storytelling in explosive unison.


Watch: Whiplash screens at the London Film Festival, with general release in January 2015.