Like the rat-at-tat-tat of a drumroll on a snare, Whiplash builds tension like no film has managed in years, it’s exhilarating, agonising, heart breaking and visceral. We’re not talking simply “one of the best movies of the year” or even “The Oscar goes to…”, a conversation about Whiplash is one about one of the best films of the last decade.
Of course, I may be biased in that since I was eleven I’ve played the drums (though thankfully I didn’t have a teacher like J K Simmons’ character) but what Whiplash is so good at is making you give a damn about watching someone play Jazz on a drum kit regardless of whether you harbour a passion for drumming, jazz or even music. The movie follows a dedicated drumming student (Miles Teller) as he becomes more and more obsessed with completing his ambition of being like his idol Buddy Rich (the legendary Jazz drummer), along his way he is coached by the meticulously sadistic music instructor J K Simmons.
Although many reviews have already tackled the fact that J K Simmons is a tour de force in this film – it is an undeniably extraordinary performance dripping with black humour and the cruellest of jibes – his extraordinary portrayal of this vicious teacher is still no match for his student. Miles Teller puts in a tremendous performance as Andrew Neimen; not only is it a physically demanding role in which he convincingly portrays the blood, sweat and tears soaking into learning the drums (I know I’ve had my fair share of those on my own kit) but it is a technical achievement beyond measure to convincingly portray Jazz drumming on film. Although Teller had played drums in rock bands before, so wasn’t unfamiliar sitting behind a kit, he looks so comfortable playing some of the most complicated Jazz drumming imaginable; it is an incredible achievement. But, no matter how excellent the drumming is (and by god it, and the rest of the awesome Jazz soundtrack, is amazing) it is the portrait of the obsessive drive to be the best which makes Teller’s performance so captivating.
In Neimen’s quest to become one of the greats he becomes an selfish and ugly character, willing to abandon everything to be remembered as one of the best musicians of the century. It is this which makes the story such an enthralling one because it defies the conventional approach to becoming a great; there is no heartwarming tale of fame and fortune because of a chance encounter with a producer, it isn’t a talent show contest. There is genuine – and heartbreaking – sacrifice, of family and loved ones, which goes into Neiman’s quest to become the best drummer he can. It can become easy to think that success happens overnight with the proliferation of X Factor wannabees but Whiplash shows that even the most talented people may have to go above and beyond to make it.
Writer Director Damien Chazelle (also a drummer) has achieved something really remarkable with Whiplash, not because it has extraordinary performances in it, or incredible music or even because its whip-smart script is full of fantastic one liners and genuine emotional moments. No, it is because it delves deep into the human psyche and our innate desire to be great, to be remembered, to be adored, to be better than we are right now. It also leaves you with a beautiful ambiguity as to whether Neiman has chosen the correct way of achieving this deepest of desires; is it better to be talked about by strangers at a dinner table in 30 years (as he says in a scene early in the film) or to be held in adulation by his loved ones? He makes his choice but you can’t help but keep asking yourself whether he should have chosen differently, it’s a question which haunts you and leaves this film as a masterpiece worthy of your time over and over again.
Whiplash is a remarkable film on so many levels. It is an outstanding achievement to capture such a difficult instrument in so realistic a fashion, and it also emotionally engages you with these characters and their flaws in so profound a way to keep you thinking about the message long after the film is over. It won’t win the Oscar because it’s too smart for that, but it is an instant classic which will leave your heart in your throat and your heart palpitating with adrenaline. Go and watch it now.