I had the privilege of seeing Whiplash at the BFI’s London Film Festival last October. (It was shown at the Accenture gala, renowned for the quality of its films choices). Directed by Damien Chazelle, the film is now on general release in the UK. It is a film with an extraordinary reputation – a reputation that turns out to be completely deserved. Indeed, Whiplash generated a rare standing ovation during the London festival in the vast cathedral space of the Leicester Square Odeon.
The movie is a mash-up of film genres that takes the audience on an emotional and stretching journey. The ending in particular is outrageously redemptive and enthusiastic, revolving around a confrontation between the main characters described purely through musical performance.
The story starts with 19-year old Andrew Neiman (played with a smouldering monomania by Miles Teller). Neiman is a young drummer who wins a place at the Shaffer Conservatory, a major music academy in New York. His ambition is to become one of the “greats” in jazz drumming, Buddy Rich being the example used in the film. Indeed, the film’s name comes from a complex jazz classics, which used in a key musical sequence.
Neiman soon encounters a legendary conductor and teacher called Terence Fletcher. In conventional terms, Fletcher is the villain of the film, although he retains a certain brute-force charm throughout. He is played with psychopathic, wiry and wild-eyed perfection by JK Simmons. Fletcher starts by projecting that charm, initially with elegance, but he turns out to be a talented, inspiring and abusive monster who humiliates the young people in his band, delivering badass and disturbingly funny insults with real gusto. There are hints of a prior student having committed suicide under pressure. The engine of the plot is the tension that develops between Neiman and Fletcher.
With this premise the film moves far away from the cinematic conventions around music or pupil-teacher relationships. It adds dramatic and stylistic conventions from film noir, the tensest of legal dramas, crime thrillers and war movies. It is delightfully old-fashioned in its melodramatic tone.
As a result, the film itself becomes a master class in technique and performance from the ensemble of director, film crew and actors. It is an extended riff on film conventions that is aimed to dazzle. Variety’s reviewer Peter Debruge wrote that the film “demolishes the clichés of the musical-prodigy genre, investing the traditionally polite stages and rehearsal studios of a topnotch conservatory with all the psychological intensity of a battlefield or sports arena.” Close your eyes and you know it should seem ludicrous – life is not this dramatic. But open them and you enter a bargain with the director and actors with little hesitation. This is a story that demands to be followed.
As the film develops, Neiman is inspired – almost demonically possessed – by Fletcher and spends every waking moment rehearsing and practicising, until there is blood on his hands. He looses his girl friend, and brutally competes with other drummers in Fletcher’s orbit.
Without revealing too much of the plot, the two fall out and Fletcher dismisses Neiman, before his own troubles with the academy over the intensity of his abusive style. But somehow the plot engineers a reunion at a major concert, which turns out to be a ploy to humiliate Neiman. However, Neiman grits metaphorical teeth, and proves himself in a performance of the jazz classic caravan, perfectly assembled via images related to the music, and shots of the faces of the actors. Somehow, with no dialogue whatsoever, the film resolves the tension between the two protagonists. It is easy to applaud.
The film itself possesses an inspiring history of hard effort and perseverance. The original script was featured in the 2012 “Black List” of the best motion picture screenplays that have not yet been produced. Chazelle then turned 15 pages of the screenplay into a short film that was noticed, then acclaimed at the Sundance festival in 2013. The full film was made finally for a small budget of just over $3 million. It has won and been nominated for a dazzling array of awards.
The bottom line is this. Whiplash is a wonderful piece of film making that moves and inspires the audience. It should be in the top five of films to see this year for any true cinema buff. And you will leave the cinema uplifted. Enjoy.