Whiplash tells the story of 19 year old Andrew Nelman, a fresh faced , first year student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in New York. The best music school in the country, Nelman wants his name to go down in history as one of the greatest drummers of all time, a dream that could potentially become reality after one night being spotted practising by the infamous, and influential conductor, Terence Fletcher. Invited to join Fletcher’s school band as a drumming alternate, it isn’t long before he impresses Fletcher and becomes the youngest main drummer in the school’s history. However, Fletcher has a dark side; he’s bullying on an emotional and mental level, manipulating and pushing Nelman to the point where he is an anxiety ridden mess. As the pair’s relationship develops, a battle of wits ensues that leads to blood, violence and sabotage.
The David to Foxcatcher and Birdman’s Goliath; Whiplash is actually my favourite film I’ve seen so far this award season. Continuing his trend of music based thrillers, Grand Piano writer, Damien Chazelle, takes what some may consider a film that’s superficially about drumming and takes it to whole other level of excitement and intrigue. Whilst Grand Piano didn’t quite live up to its Hitchcockian potential, Whiplash transcends it, finding tension in the unlikeliest of places. With an over reliance on special effects and big set pieces in modern day cinema, Chazelle settles on a drum solo as Whiplash’s climatic scene, one that despite, or perhaps due to its simplicity, manages to pull you in multiple directions and leave you on the edge of your seat until it gloriously cuts to black. Some people may think that describing the film as a psychological thriller is stretching it a little, but that is undoubtedly what Whiplash is, with a sense of mystery and darkness weaved into the story and the central characters ambiguity.
In Nelman and Fletcher, we have two fully formed characters that are truly fascinating to watch. Fletcher is particularly beguiling, a complex puzzle that you will hate one moment and like the next, rather worryingly. The film asks is if his bullying mentorship is acceptable if it drives Nelman to greatness, or is there a line that is crossed? One of many questions that we’re left to discern the answer for ourselves. J.K is electric as Fletcher, putting in a loud and aggressive performance that is filled with physical subtlety at the same time. He does overshadow Miles Teller considerably, who still puts in a layered turn as Nelman, but perhaps more impressively, actually plays the drums too, albeit with a little help from editor Tom Cross.
Despite the impressive central performances though, the biggest thing I took away from Whiplash was the talent that is writer and director Damien Chazelle. What he’s created here is essentially Rocky for a whole new generation, but with a smidgen more darkness. It’s fundamentally a story about overpowering obsession and how the desire to be great can cause you social and familial seperation. One of the elements of the film is Nelman’s relationship with his new girlfriend. There’s a great moment where he is watching videos of famous drummers on his phone, when he gets a txt message from his girlfriend, a stark reminder that there is more to life than his passion. Chazelle uses this element as a way of showing us the similarities between Nelman and Fletcher as their personalities becoming increasingly blurred through the film.
From a technical standpoint, Whiplash is a triumph. With Damien Chazelle taking the directorial reigns for only second time, he leaves an impressive and confident visual stamp all over the film. The editing is snappy and the jazz soundtrack harks back to films of the 60’s and 70’s. All of this gives Whiplash a traditional feel but injected with modern day style, genius film making on the part of Damien Chazelle, a talent that I’m very excited about. Needless to say then, that Whiplash is a must see. It’s the type of film that comes out of nowhere and surprises the hell out of you. An exciting and blistering thriller that will leave you on a cinematic high for quite sometime afterwards.
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