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I'm breaking from the pack a little with this one in that I seem to about the only one on here so far that hasn't fallen head over heels in love with this film


Year of release

Directed by
Damien Chazelle

Written by
Damien Chazelle

Miles Teller
J.K. Simmons
Paul Reiser
Melissa Benoist
Austin Stowell
Jayson Blair



Plot - Andrew Neiman (Teller) is a young and talented drummer who dreams of being one of the absolute greats. He is in his first year at Shaffer Conservatory of Music, regarded as the best music school in the country, when the respected and feared Terence Fletcher (Simmons) selects him to play in his Studio band. It doesn't take Andrew long however to learn that his selection does not guarantee a smooth ride to the top. It is only when he joins his class that he realises how much of a ruthless tyrant Fletcher is; he will abuse his students both verbally and even physically to try and get what he wants. In his attempts to please him Andrew's determination soon spirals into full-blown obsession. With these two constantly clashing who will come out on top?

In amongst all the massive event movies (Interstellar), issues movies (Selma), technical marvels (Birdman) and awards bait (Theory of Everything) that are jostling for Oscar nominations one smaller, unassuming film seems to have shot up the outside and become the darling of many a viewer; Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. In the last month or so I went from being almost completely ignorant of this movie to greatly anticipating it as a result of a string of reviews that have lavished unreserved praise upon it. Well it's certainly a very good movie and one that I definitely enjoyed, I can't deny either point, but it didn't quite live up to my expectations which had only recently gone from non-existent to sky high. And perhaps that's why I didn't fall for it quite to the extent of others. Whiplash is the kind of small film that people love to just sort of stumble upon with limited knowledge or expectations. Had I seen it a few weeks ago I may well have loved it, but now that I was greatly looking forward to it there was a degree of pressure on it.

Back in 2002 the Eminem-starring 8 Mile hit cinema screens, with countless reviews proclaiming it the rap version of Rocky with the film's thrilling rap battles standing in for boxing bouts. Well Whiplash could almost be categorised as the drumming version of Saving Private Ryan. It seems a truly preposterous notion but somehow Damien Chazelle has managed to make the act of banging away on some drums into one of the most thrilling things you'll see in cinemas all year, capturing a level of drama and intensity that doesn't feel a million miles away from that delivered by Spielberg's epic depiction of warfare. And to make things even tougher on itself, Whiplash focuses on jazz music, a genre that doesn't exactly have the cool, rebellious image of rock for example. That still doesn't stop Chazelle however. He employs a roving camera that likes to get up close to the performers during the musical performances, fixating on every bead of sweat and every throbbing vein, to bring a real sense of intimacy to proceedings that really pushes its immersive and absorbing qualities. Lots of credit for these sequences is also due for the film's editor, Tom Cross, who does an exceptional job.

So I was very impressed with Chazelle's efforts behind the camera as Whiplash's director. I would be more reticent with my praise when it comes to his writing however. His dialogue is good, it flows nicely and feels natural, but I did find myself questioning the movie's extreme approach to its subject. Now Chazelle was actually in a jazz band back in high school so perhaps it really can be this way but I just found myself struggling to imagine that such an environment could exist in this day and age; an environment where a teacher could possibly be so abusive to his students, not just verbally but physically, and seemingly get away with it for a substantial length of time. Never mind being fired he should be in jail for assault. Perhaps it could be explained away as just a heightened sense of reality but at times it just felt rather over-the-top and unrealistic. And then at around the hour mark the film takes a brief detour into full-blown melodrama that I felt was unwise and quite frankly unnecessary; the film was doing just fine at generating drama through Andrew's exploits and struggles at his drum set without resorting to something that felt comparatively cheap. And when it came to the film's finale, as undeniably enthralling and adrenaline-fuelled as it is, I felt it was a touch contrived and didn't ring particularly true. Even the character of Terence Fletcher, as incredibly portrayed as it was by J.K. Simmons (more on that later), was so big that he was right on the brink of crossing over into caricature throughout the whole film.

Above everything else the film seems to about sacrifice. It's about the sacrifices you have to make and the lengths you have to go to if you want to be truly great at something. It's only the very lucky few that are blessed with the natural, innate talent of a prodigy at birth; for everyone else you have to really work at it. And boy does Andrew Neiman work for it. In this film, pouring your 'blood, sweat and tears into it' isn't just a glib expression, it literally is the case. And there's even a bit of spit thrown in for good measure. Earlier on I mentioned the Rocky comparison that was frequently brought up in discussions of 8 Mile. Perhaps I should just have stuck with that analogy for Whiplash because after drumming Andrew often looks like he's just gone three minutes with the heavyweight champion of the world. As he sits on his stool, drenched in sweat and with hands bloodied, I was half expecting him to say something along the lines of “cut me Mick.”

For all this talk of sacrifice however I was left to question some of the exact ideology and messages at its core and its depiction of this world. I got the feeling that Chazelle was under the impression that he was making an inspirational film, but I'm really not sure I'd say that's the case. Given that the film has lifted much of its structure from your standard sports film you feel certain that at some point Andrew Neiman will rise up and overcome the abuse and anguish he has suffered to emerge victorious and heroic. Instead of rebelling against it however, he embraces it. It's almost as if the film is arguing that Fletcher's approach was right all along; that all the abuse he handed out, all the dreams he crushed, even driving someone to suicide, it was all worth it just to help one student.

Film Trivia Snippets - During the more intense scenes of drumming Damien Chazelle would not yell cut to force Miles Teller to keep drumming until he had completely exhausted himself. /// The role of Andrew Neiman was turned down by Chronicle and Amazing Spider-Man 2 star, Dane DeHaan. /// For the slapping scene, J.K. Simmons and Miles Tellar filmed several takes with Simmons only miming the slap. For the final take, Simmons and Teller decided to film the scene with a real, genuine slap. This is the take that is in the film. /// Miles Teller has been drumming since he was 15 years old. When he was hired for the film however he took additional lessons 3 times a week for 4 hours a day to prepare. /// Damien Chazelle was unable to get funding for Whiplash as a feature film. As a result he instead turned it into an 18 minute short film and submitted it into the Sundance Film Festival in 2013. The short film ended up winning the Short Film Jury Award, and he got funding soon after.
And if this really was an accurate representation of the music landscape then I feel it would be a very sparsely populated world. I felt there was a complete absence of joy and passion for the music being performed. Those unfortunate enough to be under Fletcher's tutelage are forever wearing a grim look on their face and eyes of fear. They look less like a music class and more like a POW camp. Even Andrew's aspirations seem somewhat questionable. He doesn't appear to be doing this just out of love for drumming. His end goal is not to just be a great musician but to be remembered and talked about after he's gone; for him that would be the definition of creating great music. It feels like a lack of respect to create art, instead just making it a quest for glory, and somewhat souring the drama and excitement of the performances. I'm left wondering how many teachers and coaches the film may unfortunately inspire to act in a similar totalitarian fashion to Terence Fletcher, and also how many potential musical students it may turn off.

I was also somewhat turned off by the film's fixation with homophobic insults, particularly numerous uses of the word 'f*ggot'. All of the cursing and verbal abuse is one thing but this just felt unnecessary and to me it just came across as cheap, lazy and sensationalist. Remove Fletcher's repeated use of the phrase and replace it with just a general insult and it's not going to lessen his monstrous image any. There are several films and situations where it would be an acceptable element, or even strange to omit it. Here however I didn't think it had any real justification and it slightly disturbs me that it seems to be acceptable. For example there are several black students in Fletcher's class. Had he uttered the 'n word' on several occasions throughout the film I imagine it would have caused a bit of an outcry.

I think that another part of the reason why I didn't love the film to the extent that many people have is that while I was captivated by the on-stage trials of Miles Teller's Andrew Neiman, I don't think I could say the same for the character himself. Beyond his undeniable passion and drive for music I don't feel that I ever really get to know him, and what we do get to know isn't the most likeable or sympathetic of individuals as he wallows in self-absorption. There are some brief snapshots of his home life that attempt to sketch out why he is so insanely driven that didn't do a great deal for me. There is also a romantic sub-plot for Andrew, the purpose of which is to show the effect his obsession has on his everyday life outside of music, but I felt it was one of the film's weaker elements even if it was sweetly and tenderly played by both Teller and Melissa Benoist.

Now the one facet of Whiplash that dominates everything else is most certainly the performance of J.K. Simmons as noted conductor and fearsome music teacher, Terence Fletcher. Simmons' is one of the most reliable and watchable actors out there. Up until now however he had pretty much made a career out of being a character actor, of impressing and of stealing the show from supporting roles. Well it may have taken him some 20 years but he has finally found the role that has allowed him to take centre stage. Simmons is probably best known for his role as J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy. That series featured such iconic comic book villains as the Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Venom and Sandman; well Terence Fletcher would have eaten every single one of them for breakfast! It is a truly monstrous performance from Simmons that has seemingly put him in pole position for the Best Supporting Actor award at this year's Oscars, Golden Globes, Baftas and every other awards show in existence.

There has perhaps never been an individual more suited to convey the sentiment, 'doesn't suffer fools gladly' than his Fletcher. If you make a mistake he will absolutely destroy you. Even if you don't make a mistake he will probably still destroy you just for the fun of it. He is absolutely terrifying, the kind of teacher every single one of us dreaded having. He is basically what would happen if you were to take R. Lee Ermey's drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket and put him in charge of a music class. This tyrant is a character that would fit snugly on many a 'Greatest Movie Villains' list....except is he truly a villain? How much of this snarling, abusive, sadistic beast is who he really is, and how much of it is a performance aimed at deriving the absolute best out of his students? Is he pushing them to deliver their best, or is he pushing them to their breaking point? I don't think there's much doubt that he is an exceptionally flawed individual but as to what the final verdict on him will be, I think that will very much depend on the viewer.

Conclusion - Whiplash is without a doubt an exhilarating film the is powered by two excellent performances, particularly the performance of J.K. Simmons which explodes with the energy of an atomic bomb. On a technical level it is a great success but I was left less impressed by its overwrought approach to the material, slight characterisation and some of its questionable ideology. I certainly didn't find the masterpiece that so many others have. Though I will admit I am perhaps looking too hard for morals and messages here; perhaps I should just have taken it more on a surface level