babadababadababada…”Nope, still not my tempo”
babada…”NOT MY MOTHERFUCKING TEMPO!”
In our pursuit of perfection, are we justified to push the boundaries of what is deemed socially acceptable? This is a prominent theme that runs through Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, which charts the turbulent relationship between Andrew (Miles Teller), a gifted drummer and student of the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory music school, and Fletcher (J K Simmons), a tyrannical tutor cum-composer whose pursuit for perfection from his students has no limits.
For Chazelle, inspiration has been a mix of his own experience as a trained Jazz Musician, and the tale of saxophonist Charlie Parker, whose impromptu solo on stage at the Reno Club in Kansas City went awry, resulting in drummer, Jo Jones, hurling a cymbal in his direction out of frustration. With Parker reduced to a laughing stock, he cut himself off from the world and invested all his time in to his art. A year later, Parker emerges and returns to Kansas City and performs, as Fletcher so eloquently puts it, “the best fucking solo anyone in the room ever heard”.
Fletcher’s career has been invested in identifying and mining out the perfect musician, all in the hope of recreating a moment as perfect as Parker’s. With an almost omnipresent quality, he stalks the school halls in search of a prospective talent. Once located, his methods are extreme to say the least. There is poise to his manner, everything appears calm, calculated and measured, but when things aren’t to his beat, it’s an explosion of fury. Think Gunnery Sargent Hartman from Full Metal Jacket.
Our young prodigy Andrew has been raised alone by his father with no musical influences in his family, and yet has developed into an immensely talented, self trained jazz drummer inspired by the greats like Buddy Rich. He is driven to matter, not just exist. Making up for his lack of professional training with an unrivalled determination and work ethic, he fits the model of a Charlie Parker type character, who can achieve greatness through perseverance and the guidance of Fletcher.
You would not be amiss to think that Chazelle is walking us down a familiar path with this set up, but nothing is certain and he throws in a few offbeats to keep us guessing right up until the finale, a scene which pulls you one way, before catching you completely off guard, leading to one of the most entertaining conclusions in recent cinema. And this uncertainty is prevalent throughout the film, no more so than in the characters themselves – Are Fletcher’s methods justified if it breeds results? Is Andrew right to block out the people who care for him in pursuit of becoming the best?
Central to this are the performances from Teller and Simmons. Simmons invariably draws the most plaudits with his large-than-life, Oscar nominated performance, carrying a presence that creates an air of anticipation whenever he is on screen. Drawing laughter out of fear or perhaps his colourful way with words, he is the personification of a bully. Some will warm to his demeanour and rationale for his actions, others will loathe him. Much the same, Teller, with his puppy dog expression and low self esteem, immediately garners affection in contrast to Simmons, but as Fletcher’s influence takes hold, their performances synchronise to disturbing effect, leading us to question our earlier judgement.
The performances are standout, with both actors having a clear understanding of the script and their characters arcs, all orchestrated around Chazelle’s masterful direction – it’s an incredible feat when you learn that the filming wrapped in just 19 days. This is a thoughtful, intellectual piece of filmmaking; a true study of human psychology. And yet, at its purest, Whiplash is the classic rise of the underdog, a heroic battle against adversity and a duel between two men striving to be the greatest – quite simply, If Rocky had sticks, Whiplash would be the result.
Whiplash is out in Cinemas now
Words > Sam Lawrence