Director: Damien Chazelle.
Screenplay: Damien Chazelle.
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang, Chris Mulkey, Damon Gupton, Suanne Spoke, Max Kasch, Charlie Ian, Jayson Blair.
“If you deliberately sabotage my band, I’m gonna fuck you like a pig”.
One simple word springs to mind when I think of Whiplash. Just one word… “Oz“.
Those that are familiar with the HBO series that ran from 1997 to 2003 will no doubt remember the brutal intensity of the white supremacist character Vern Schillinger. It was one of my first experiences of actor J.K. Simmons and ever since then I’ve been a big fan. Now I’m not suggesting that Simmons is the only thing about this film that strikes you but he’ll mostly be the thing that leaves you continually thinking about it.
At a highly prestigious music school, 19 year old Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is determined to prove his worth as a drumming student. However, in order to prove himself he has to go through the exacting conductor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Fletcher is a man who accepts nothing but the best and to impress him becomes an arduous ordeal for young Neiman.
Inspirational teachers are often depicted in film with great respect and admiration. They often touch the hearts of their pupils and bring out the best in them. In Oscar nominated turns, Richard Dreyfuss’ played music teacher Glenn Holland in the little-seen Mr. Holland’s Opus and as the passionate English professor John Keating, the late Robin Williams achieved the same in Dead Poets Society. Two thoroughly heartwarming characters that inspired their students to want to learn and grow. Whiplash, however, takes an altogether different path; J.K. Simmons’ Terence Fletcher certainly inspires his students but it’s not through admiration or respect, it’s through spite and a determination to prove his vehement criticism wrong. As a result, the film becomes a highly charged, back and forth, exchange between teacher and pupil.
The back and forth tension between the two characters almost reflect the instrument at the centre of the film itself; caught in Fletcher’s snare or marching bass, Neiman is like the clashing symbol trying to break out. There’s a constant beat between them that director Damien Chazelle captures wonderfully. He has complete control over his scenes and when the moment is called upon to hold tight and build the tension, he does so with the ability of a director with twice his experience. Added to which, he manages to maintain this approach until the very end, making Whiplash a great achievement in only his second film (after the Jazz musical Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench in 2009 he originally delivered Whiplash as a short film which won the Short Film Jury prize at Sundance Film Festival before being funded for a feature length film).
In order for Chazelle to realise his vision, though, he must have the actors to pull it off, and he does; Young Miles Teller breaks free from his earlier romantic comedy roles to deliver a work of real maturity while Simmons is simply electrifying. As mentioned earlier, though, if you’ve seen Oz then this will be of no surprise to you. He’s an absolutely ferocious and towering presence that dominates every scene he’s involved in. Having already won numerous critical and festival awards including the Golden Globe – as well as being hotly tipped to take the Best Supporting Actor Oscar – it finally looks like Simmons has caught people’s attention. I can only say… it’s about fucking time. Simmons has been doing outstanding work for over 20 years now. No matter how big or small or how dramatic or comedic, he always delivers and no one, at this time, is more deserving of praise for their efforts than this man. Welcome Mr. Simmons! There’s certainly no need for introductions. It’s always a pleasure having you.
An intensely powerful and personal film that turns, what could be a generic and dull drama, into one that’s gripping and absorbing from the offset. It’s masterfully directed and outstandingly performed and when films of this nature creep up on the ‘bigger’ films of the year it not only demands your attention, it’s deserving of it.
Trivia: Miles Teller, who has played the drums since he was 15, received blisters on his hands due to the vigorous, unconventional style of jazz drumming. Some of his blood was on the drumsticks and the drum set as a result. While J.K. Simmons suffered two cracked ribs when Miles Teller tackled him during a scene.