We all had that teacher in school that everyone was afraid of, the mere sight of them walking down the corridor sent a wave of silence through the students lining the walls waiting to enter the safe zones of their classrooms. Rumours followed them around like a swarm of questionable bees. Now imagine this tenfold and you’re getting close to JK Simmons’ enthralling performance as Terrence Fletcher — mentor, conductor, tormentor.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a first year student at a top music school in New York — the Shaffer Conservatory. He idolises such stars a Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker and hopes that one day he may make it onto this list of greats alongside his heroes. So when the infamous Terence Fletcher offers him a place as the alternative drummer in his studio band he’s thrilled. This joy soon gives way to absolute terror when he realises that Fletcher is a psychotic, violent and explosive teacher. He narrowly avoids a chair to the face flung at him by the instructor in a fit of rage at a minor mistake.
From the first note during the opening sequence of Whiplash the hooks are in. The film spends the rest of its runtime reeling you in until the awe inspiring climax. You’re left breathless, the music, characters and searing emotions reverberating around your skull. As I sit writing this review my spine tingles at the memory of certain scenes, certain moments, certain encounters.
It’s amazing to think that Damien Chazelle shot the entire film in just 19 days, the last few with a concussion from a hospitalising car crash. He was back on set the very next day. The speed of the shoot shows through to the film both in terms of pacing (excellent) and energy (exhausting!). In the best way possible it’s tiring to watch, by the end you feel both physically and emotionally drained.
Miles Teller is superb as the young drummer, desperate for his shot, unwilling to be broken. His hands are bleeding but Neiman bandages them up tightly and keeps going. He won’t be beaten and his towering level of obsession is addictive. I’ve not rooted for a protagonist to succeed as much as this in a very long time. Objectively it’s a film about music but in reality the real question here is how far will someone go to be the best. You wholeheartedly believe that Neiman will go as far as he physically and psychologically can and you just have to sit and watch, helpless and hoping that it’s worth the intense sacrifices he makes.
I’d like to take a moment to address a few concerns that have been raised regarding the message Whiplash raises. Is abuse and torment accepted if it produces the next genius, the next Charlie Parker? No. Of course not but I’m also pretty sure that’s not what Chazelle is trying to say. This is drama and the most important thing is the struggle, the conflict that our characters have to deal with. It’s important to note that no-one is condoning Fletcher’s methods, either in the film or in real life. He’s definitely in the wrong. The beautiful thing about film as a medium is that it can take sensitive issues such as abuse and weave them into a story that shows the issue for what it is. I don’t think anyone will walk away from Whiplash thinking, “Fletcher has cracked the method to teaching!” He’s monstrous but in an utterly compelling way. Yet still monstrous all the same.
Whiplash is one of those films that leaves you thinking about it for days after the credits roll. There’s not much left to say except go and watch it as soon as you possibly can!