Whiplash is not the film that many will think it is. At least, it’s not necessarily what is advertised. The trailer shows an intimidating teacher, played by J.K Simmons, harassing and pressuring a young Jazz drummer played by Miles Teller, giving the impression that this is a movie about abuse and the pressure to succeed or meet somebody else’s expectations. The movie does contain this, and it delivers in this area well but this film is about goals, expectation and what we are willing to settle for, in ourselves and others.
Take it as that kind of movie at it may not be for everyone or even be the draw that Whiplash probably is. That is why you market it as a vehicle for Simmons’ terrifying conductor, Fletcher, and it’s a good idea because his character is the best aspect of the whole movie.
From the moment he enters the screen, he holds the movie. He is a perfect villain because he feels so real and everyone has met, encountered or been “chewed-out” by someone like him. His ability to erupt at a moments notice keeps you on your toes and you will be appalled and entertained in equal measure as he rips into another student in his collective. It’s definitely Simmons’ film but his performance only works when he is balanced by the great Teller.
Miles Teller won’t get the plaudit’s he deserves as Simmons rightly overshadows the whole movie but he sells the impact of Simmons’ teaching and outbursts, as well as the effect it has on his character when Simmons isn’t even in the room. This film isn’t about abuse or the extreme way he motivates but is instead about that drive for success and how much people want to be “great.” This is where Teller comes into his own, holding the screen in moments that showcase his ability to play drums (or at least act like he is) with the hand cracking damage that goes with it. Teller sells both the physical and emotional pain in this movie.
It’s down to director Damien Chazelle to sell the performance of the music. There are moments when you’ll see the join, where the drums, as fast as they go, and Teller’s performance, don’t match. This is worth overlooking though because of the shots Chazelle chooses to sell the sweat, blood and tears (all literal) that Teller puts into his music. Close-ups of the rattling symbols, shaking hands struggling with drumsticks or just flicks between one instrument, another and the ice gaze of Simmons’ Fletcher. It all sells the impact of the music, which coincidentally is Jazz and not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea (including mine).
The film manages to sell that to you as well and I defy anyone not to leave the cinema air drumming or bouncing their head to some imaginary beat. Everything about the film will catch you, from the performances that draw you in and the music that keeps you there.
There are a couple of faults though. A set-piece in the middle seems to be brushed over all too soon considering the impact (literally) that it has on the movie. The finale also feels over-played, almost like the movie lacked a real ending and Chazelle wanted a forced impact for the grand end. These can be brushed aside though because by this point you are sold on Simmons, Teller and the way they present the music.
Overall, Whiplash delivers the movie the trailers promise and another, more subtle story. Simmons is electrifying as the nasty, cruel and sometimes sadistic teacher who pushes too far while Teller sells the passionate, wounded but strong student. This isn’t necessarily a film about abuse though and the other story it tells, the one about being better and striving for greatness, that one is told fantastically too.
Rating – 4.5
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)