James Middleton re-reviews Whiplash for us after the films success at the Oscars this year.
In 1937, a young jazz musician named Charlie Parker had a cymbal thrown at his head after he made some basic mistakes during a band recital. Rather than deterring him from a musical path, the incident motivated Parker to practice harder in order not to suffer any similar future indignities.
Embellished or not, it’s a tale which inspires the teaching methods of Terence Fletcher – J.K. Simmons, at his coldest and baldest – as he berates, bullies and – appropriately – beats brilliant drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) up to and beyond the boundaries of his ability and wellbeing. Despite the anecdote recurring multiple times within Whiplash, the film takes care not to emulate the event itself; it doesn’t try to hit us over the head with clunky cymbalism, and rarely strikes a duff note.
Many reviewers have drawn links between Simmons’ performance and R. Lee Ermey’s famed turn as drill-sergeant in Kubrick’s grimy Vietnam study (the ‘Full Metal Jazz-it’ jokes have written themselves). Those only familiar with Simmons from the ‘Spiderman’ franchise will at least be accustomed to encountering him short-tempered, even if the repeated homophobic screaming comes a little left-of-field. But anyone who has witnessed his portrayal as the fearsome Vernon Schillinger in HBO prison-drama Oz will be all-too aware of his alarming ability to vacillate easily between sudden brutality and gruff charisma. Fletcher aggressively presides over goings-on in the hierarchical, combative corridors of New York’s ‘Shaffer Conservatory’ just as Schillinger does the hierarchical, combative corridors of New York’s eponymous penitentiary.
Held captive by Fletcher is the ambitious, precocious Andrew. Teller’s naturally placid, open expression presents an effective blank canvas for the gurning, perspiration, and weeping his vocation demands, and forms a neat wary contrast with Simmons’ weary, rubbery mask. The tiny scars, evident in close-up, which slide around Teller’s chin and jaw also help pepper this guilelessness with indicators of the hard streaks of resilience and combat which gradually reveal themselves. Most other roles – father and girlfriend, bandmates and band no-longer-mates – are competently filled, if distinctly second fiddle.
The film marks Damien Chazelle’s sophomore directorial effort, and he conducts the piece with confidence, moving us smoothly around the cramped stages and around the flailing Neiman. We are frequently kept tight and low alongside Andrew as he alone bears the brunt of another well-rehearsed series of quips from his tyrannical coach. But Chazelle is careful not to neglect capturing his role within the band which surrounds him, and the film’s most impressive sequences thrust us madly from percussion to brass to woodwind to strings and back again, neatly recreating the excitement and frenzy of a live recital without descending into cacophony. Much of this can be attributed to the impressive editing – a deserved academy-award victory – which maintains its propulsive rhythmic quality without feeling as if it is solely prescribed by the soundtrack.
The film occasionally misses a beat. Less time could be dedicated to Andrew’s relationship with his girlfriend which, while revealing, occasionally lapses into insipid rom-com territory. Andrew’s quick-witted family dinner putdowns also do not quite ring true; he may be feeling the effects of his time spent with Fletcher, but he has not yet had the years of practice which permit his tutor to deliver his little parcels of misery so effectively.
Ultimately however, Whiplash is an elegantly constructed and engaging effort, which not unlike a drum-roll builds from a measured start into a genuinely thrilling finale. To everyone involved: ‘Good job.’