The question shared by all – “how much can I enjoy a film about drumming, when I don’t know the first thing about it?” Whether you like music or not, Damien Chazelle’s Oscar nominated WHIPLASH is electrifying, gripping, and shocking in so many ways. It is story of the relationship between 19-year-old Andrew Niemann (Miles Teller), a male protagonist that astounds the audience with his devotion, and his complete dedication to drumming, and his unpredictable music teacher.
Attending the Julliard-inspired Shaffer conservatory of New York City, (“the best music school in the country” put by Niemann), it is clear the young music student’s passion surpasses that of his fellow band members; Teller’s character opens the film practising in what we soon learn to be his drum room, his t-shirt stained with sweat and his face screaming desperation; he is a talented, but a small fish in a sea of sharks. Yet there is one shark he is dying to impress – abrasive music teacher, Terrence Fletcher, played here in an Oscar-worthy performance by J.K. Simmons. It would appear Simmons’ hair-raising character Fletcher wants nothing more for his pupils than success, but his approach to motivation is startling; as Fletcher himself puts it, “there are no two words more harmful, than ‘good job’”. His silhouette roams the college halls, peering into prospective band rooms, as students wait anxiously for their chance in his famous sessions band. Yet when Andrew Niemann is given this chance, he quickly learns what price he must pay to earn his seat in the session band permanently.
The story of one Charlie Parker, a hopeful young saxophonist, revolves around the majority of Fletcher’s argument. The apocryphal story, as told by the devil of Shaffer conservatory, describes how Jo Jones launched a symbol across the stage at the musician’s head when he got carried away in a solo performance. The result? Driven by humiliation and misery, but now fuelled with determination, Parker returns a year later to play “the best f—in’ solo anyone in the room had ever heard.” Although dramatized, (in reality, Parker threw the symbol to the floor), the story is reflected in the actions of Fletcher, as his character hurls a chair at Niemann during his first practice in the session band, because his drum playing was “not quite his tempo”. Fletcher’s behaviour is almost humorous, but we daren’t snigger due to the fear of being caught. Simmons’ petrifying, but perfect portrayal of a musician driven by furious passion, and now driving others on the same road, makes it clear that this is not a film about what humiliating dedication does to those willing to learn, but by what it does to those people teaching how to learn. The actor himself almost agrees with the actions of his character, as he says “the whole macho thing you develop at puberty never goes away”. His electrifying performance is unforgettable, closely matched by Teller’s portrayal of outsider Niemann, pushed unimaginably by his mentor.
Niemann’s continually improving skill on the drum set is reflected in the accelerating tempo of the film, (shooting was wrapped up in 19 days). The two astonishingly acted lead roles of this film show continual character development, as the two regain and lose trust in one another numerous times. Although predominantly focused on music, the film appeals to every sense in your body, particularly in the final scene, as Niemann counters the betrayal of his tutor, outwitting him, resulting in a hair-raising drum solo. Without revealing any spoilers, I would watch the film again purely for this iconic moment. Highly recommended, and completely different to anything you’ll see this year. Well worth the watch, even if the sound of drumming has made me flinch ever since.
Whiplash is showing at FACT Picturehouse this week. For times click here.