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Whiplash

D: Damien Chazelle / 107m

Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Nate Long, Chris Mulkey, Damon Gupton, Suanne Smoke

At the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music, nineteen year old Andrew Neiman (Teller) is an aspiring jazz drummer who wants to be the best in the world, as good if not better than Buddy Rich, his idol. He attracts the attention of tyrannical conductor Terence Fletcher (Simmons) who is looking for a drum alternate for his band. At a concert where the band is performing, the core drummer loses his sheet music and is unable to play the next piece from memory. Andrew steps in and, to his mind, becomes the new core drummer as a result.

Andrew subsequently begins a relationship with Nicole (Benoist), but after a handful of dates he takes the view that their relationship won’t work because he has to dedicate all his time to perfecting his drumming, and she will eventually become resentful of this. He tells her this quite bluntly and they break up. Meanwhile, much to Andrew’s surprise, Fletcher replaces him with another drummer, Ryan (Stowell). A few days later, Fletcher becomes emotional in class when referring to an old pupil of his who has passed away. This display of emotion is unexpected, but Fletcher soon reverts to his usual aggressive ways when he introduces a new piece and neither Andrew, Ryan or the original band drummer can maintain the right tempo. Eventually, Andrew gets it right and retains his role as core drummer ahead of an upcoming concert.

On the day of the concert, Andrew is late to the rehearsal because his bus breaks down and he has to hire a rental car to get him there. He’s also left his drumsticks at the rental office; he retrieves them but on his way back his car is hit by a truck. Despite suffering a head injury and a broken left hand, he makes it to the concert in time to take part but is unable to play properly. Fletcher calls a halt and tells Andrew he’s done. In a fit of rage, Andrew attacks him in full view of everyone there.

A few weeks pass. Andrew has been expelled. He learns that the pupil who passed away actually killed himself, and his family are blaming Fletcher, saying that his abusive behaviour caused their son’s depression and subsequent suicide. Andrew agrees to anonymously testify for them and Fletcher is dismissed. Months later, Andrew runs into Fletcher at a bar. Fletcher explains his reasons for behaving the way he did and says it was because he wanted to help his students be the best. Before they part, Fletcher invites Andrew to sit in for the drummer in his band at a festival concert. Andrew agrees, but just before the concert begins and with Andrew sitting behind his drum kit, Fletcher tells him he knows Andrew testified, and Andrew realises the first song is one he doesn’t know and doesn’t have the sheet music for.

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Based on writer/director Chazelle’s own experiences in high school, Whiplash paints a compelling portrait of intense dedication and monstrous manipulation. It’s an elemental battle of wills, with neither Andrew nor Fletcher giving any quarter, nor expecting any. The irony of it all is that both characters are as “bad” in their own way as each other: arrogant, overly self-confident, uncompromising, narcissistic, unfeeling, and committed to pushing each other as far as they can. It’s a dance, one with domination as the ultimate achievement, and they spar and fight with undisguised aggression. (If this is what band practice is really like, then best take a stab jacket and helmet.)

If Andrew learns to behave like Fletcher then the potential has been there all along, and rather than retain a spark of humanity against the onslaught of Fletcher’s callous teaching methods, by the time of the second concert he’s become an even darker version of Fletcher, dismissive of his rivals’ talents and so arrogant that he believes no one else can match him. It’s all credit to Chazelle that at this point in the movie it’s Andrew who’s clearly the monster, and not Fletcher (the clues have been there from the beginning, from the way he treats his family and Nicole). Pulling such a switch is an audacious move on Chazelle’s part but it works magnificently; instead of being appalled at Fletcher’s angry reaction to Andrew’s being late, the viewer is appalled by the degree of Andrew’s arrogance.

From there, however, the movie has a problem it never really recovers from. With both men removed from the confines of the conservatory the movie bleeds tension with every passing minute, and the urgency and drama of the first hour are replaced with a less involving period where Andrew tries to move on with his life before he and Fletcher meet up again. Then it’s on to the crowd-pleasing finale that we’ve all been waiting for (and it is well worth the wait). Chazelle redeems himself here and with editor Tom Cross, assembles one of the most exciting and breathtaking musical sequences ever committed to film.

Much has already been made of the performances, and justly so. Teller displays a maturity and confidence that removes any idea that he’s only good for rom-coms, and nails the various turbulent emotions that Andrew experiences in his efforts to be the best. It’s a breakthrough performance, riveting and compelling, and Teller is nothing short of brilliant. The same is true of Simmons, making Fletcher repellent and vicious and uncaring and horrible, and sounding like the long-lost cousin of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket (1987). It’s a mesmerising performance, and Simmons inhabits the role with a reptilian intensity that is both shocking and dismayingly funny (“I can still fucking see you, Mini-Me!”). Both actors are at the top of their game, and Chazelle capitalises on their efforts to the full, knowing just when to keep the camera on either one of them, and showing a judicious use of close-ups.

The musical scenes are shot with a close attention to the physical detail of the performances, with each cymbal crash or high note or trombone thrust highlighted by the editing, making each song a visual experience as well as an aural one. Sharone Meir’s detail-rich photography is almost a character by itself, and captures every bead of sweat and drop of blood that Andrew loses. But in a movie where the music is such an integral part of the story and plot, it’s the two compositions, “Whiplash” by Hank Levy, and “Caravan” by Juan Tizol, that stand out, two perfect choices to show how much Teller achieved through practicing four hours a day for two months, and which are fantastic compositions all by themselves.

Rating: 8/10 – with both Andrew and Fletcher removed from the conservatory, Whiplash grinds to an unexpected halt and takes too long to recover (but when it does it’s as impressive as in its first hour); with two stunning central performances, and a visceral ferocity to the drumming sequences, this is a powerful, gripping movie that plays like a sports movie and displays just as much unfettered testosterone (and that’s a good thing).

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