25 January 2015


At the time of writing, I've now seen all of this year's Best Picture Oscars contenders, thanks to advance screenings and a less staggered UK release schedule. Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel are both great; American Sniper is kind of toxic; The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything are both standard prestige fare, while Boyhood and Selma (review coming soon) rose above them by not going down the traditional road to worthiness.

But to my mind at least, we have a winner, and it's Damien Chazelle's Whiplash. Re-developed for feature length after Chazelle took a scene from his script and made it into a short film favourite at Sundance last year, the film follows jazz drummer Andrew Neiman, who has the ambition and perhaps even the talent to be one of the greats. He's eager to impress band-leader Terence Fletcher, but Fletcher's tactics of pushing his musicians beyond what's expected of them soon drive Andrew to a physical and emotional breaking point.

On the surface, this is one half of the best double bill out of this year's nominees, the other half being Birdman- both are films about holding oneself to impossibly high standards in the pursuit of greatness and both use jazz drums to heighten the tension. Coming so soon after the enveloping surreality of Birdman, Whiplash may be the part of that double bill that brings on palpitations in viewers of a nervous disposition.

It's hard to describe the effect of the film, which unfolds as a propulsive battle of wills that seems one-sided at first, as told by a filmmaker who used to be a musician himself. JK Simmons' Fletcher is based on a former teacher of Chazelle's and though the character is a warped mix of mentor and adversary to Miles Teller's Andrew. He starts out merely ignoring or dismissing musicians off-hand, but becomes steadily more terrifying as his interest is piqued. Andrew, as Chazelle's semi-autobiographical avatar, is left reeling by just about every rehearsal, with ever more gruelling practice sessions being squeezed between the terror.

Fletcher's recurring line, delivered with barely repressed rage, is "Not quite my tempo" but the effect of that is amplified by the way that the director has shot and edited it to that same unforgiving tempo. It was shot in an abbreviated 19 day window and it's been edited within an inch of its life, bringing the raw emotion and suspense to the fore of just about every scene. It works like a much more violent movie in many ways- Andrew doesn't go through the rigours of becoming a musician so much as advanced training as a soldier or preparing to go fifteen rounds with a heavyweight boxing champ.

Having gone into the film with about as low an opinion of Teller as Fletcher often has of his character, I think I finally get why people like this actor because of this. He leaves nothing on the table here, legitimately quaking with the emotion and physical effort that Andrew endures. The film could have cheated on Teller's drumming with its extreme close-ups, but a number of hard-to-fake wide shots reveal his bonafide physicality at a drum kit. If they did fake anything, then it's seamless in Teller's performance and the close-cut editing- you come out of it believing that he really is one of the best jazz drummers in the world.

But it's Simmons who will rightly be taking home every Best Supporting Actor gong between now and the Dolby Theater next month. Fletcher is no caricature of a bully- he's a full-on monster, whose rare moments of vulnerability eventually reveal the true depths of his monstrousness. Some have compared Simmons' acid-tongued turn to Peter Capaldi's role as Malcolm Tucker, but the genius of Capaldi's performance was in gradually contextualising his rage as disgust in a political class going to shit. Meanwhile, the genius in Simmons' performance is in an unapologetic conviction that he will find the next great, no matter how many people he has to destroy to get there.

Chazelle's major success is in making the stakes matter to us because they matter to these two characters. Characters close to Andrew, like Paul Reiser's mild-mannered dad and Melissa Benoit's underused love interest, question why he's putting himself through this. The answer is as simple as it sounds- Andrew aspires for greatness, and through making those stakes matter to the audience as much as the leads, the film attains that greatness.

Whiplash is impeccably scripted, edited and performed, and it stands as one of the very best films of the last twelve months, if not the best. Simmons is a frightening, complex ogre of a character and Teller is so good here that it'll be tempting to be even more harsh on the next lame bro comedy he features in, just because we know he can do better. With Chazelle conducting their performances and all of the other components at a world-beating tempo, it's a near-flawless film that will leave your jaw on the floor and your arse at the edge of your seat from the opening chords to the stunning final scene.

Whiplash is still showing in selected cinemas nationwide- look for it coming back for an encore in the run-up to the Oscars.
If you've seen Whiplash, why not share your comments below? Let's have some rampant speculation about where Spider-Man fits into all of this.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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