Whiplash tells the story of Andrew Niemann (Miles Teller), a student and drummer at a prestigious New York conservatorium, charting his course as he falls under the sway of the overbearing and terrifying instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). It is an enthralling cinematic experience.
Whiplash is a taut piece of filmmaking because everything spills out from its central theme, Niemann’s ambition to be the best drummer in the world. Even though Terence Fletcher provides the defining dynamic in this film (and indeed, a lot of the audience appeal), this is Niemann’s story and the world is constructed centrally around his quest. You can link every element back to the theme of his ambition, like the epicentre of a shatter-point.
You’ll feel like J.K. Simmons is screaming right in your face
As a technical production, it is a very accomplished film. The conservatorium is lit to illicit rich shadows that contrast nicely with the slight overexposure of the outdoor scenes. This doesn’t spill over into excessive glare and gloom but adds a subtle brooding atmosphere where necessary. It is more than reminiscent of the cinematography in a lot of David Fincher films. Think The Social Network. There’s also some excellent detailed camera work too. Whiplash has a lot of shouting, and crying, and shouting and crying together which the camera catches wonderfully with close-ups that let you see the granularity of their skin texture. You’ll feel like J.K. Simmons is screaming right in your face.
And then I suppose we must come to Terence Fletcher, the wonderfully sadistic instructor who ensnares Niemann in his jazz band. There’s more than a little of The Thick of It’s Malcolm Tucker about Fletcher. You take exquisite pleasure in hearing the next raging cavalcade of profanity-ridden bile spill forth from his mouth. These are so effective that even the smaller touches of Fletcher’s character emanate malice. You soon realise why the band halts so quickly with just the wave of his hand, and you’ll come to dread the next time he calmly utters ‘not quite my tempo.’
It can’t be said enough though; this film won’t sit well with people who can’t stand a) frequent streams of homophobic slurs, and b) drumming.
A sick dance of master and thrall
There is fun to be had seeing young men reduced to blubbering wrecks. (And it is always young men. This film runs on a distinct kind of machismo. Early on Fletcher’s dismissal of the female students is established and we proceed in a world of alpha male dominance where women are marginalised.) There’s a sick thrill to the masochistic rehearsal and practices sequences as blood and sweat comes a-gushing. The jazz concerts are good set pieces and have a lot more pizzazz than most stayed musical biopics. But the key reason to recommend Whiplash is the intelligence with which it keeps recasting the relationship between Fletcher and Niemann as more layers to Niemann’s ambition are revealed.
We first see Niemann as a talented but sheltered boy practicing late at night whose flower of ability may be crushed by the overbearing Fletcher. The zealous drive for success then becomes apparent and we see steely resolve exposed in Niemann. Eventually things accelerate into the monstrous and harmful extremities of behaviour. As this becomes apparent the relationship with Fletcher morphs. The two move from student-teacher, to oppressor-rebel, to son-father, and crucially to victim-abuser. It is a sick dance of master and thrall, where respect mingles with disgust and contempt.
Whiplash clearly depicts the dynamics of bullying and abuse
The film doesn’t offer up any easy answers. Whiplash clearly depicts the dynamics of bullying and abuse but even when the two leads are at each others’ throats, they share common ground in striving (however sadomasochistically) to perfect their art. Is a line crossed or are the trials Fletcher puts Niemann through justified to make him the best drummer he can be? Even if it is abusive, is it not effective?
I don’t think the fixation on jazz music will provide a bar for entry, though some attendees in the screening I attended seemed to hold the prevalence of drumming against Whiplash… Provided you are willing to meet it on its own merits, there’s a rich and intelligent story here – with a dark streak that might appeal to this reviewer’s particular sensibilities. Sometimes you just have to marvel at a damn well-made movie.
Verdict: You really ought to go see this film. Unless you have traumatic experiences with a music teacher in your past, of course.
Whiplash is on general release in the UK and USA.