An intense, edge of your seat, drama about jazz music would appear about as plausible as a feel-good flick in a funeral parlour but that’s exactly what director Damien Chazelle achieves with ‘Whiplash’. Music school drummer Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is young and impressionable, determined to be the next big sensation of the jazz scene. Standing in his way is intimidating conductor/mentor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) whose exceptionally high standards lend him extreme methods of coaching. Are his unorthodox teaching techniques necessary means to an end or is he bitterly blocking the threshold to stardom because he himself feels he has underachieved?
The plot holds aloft idols such as Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker, heralding the importance of leaving a legacy at all costs. In one strong scene when a dinner table discussion gets heated, the protagonist argues ‘I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was’, but at what lengths will he stop at to be remembered? A romantic subplot provides light relief from the intensity of the drumming scenes but treads familiar water, as Andrew weighs up his priorities. The narrative unfolds intelligently, helped along by terrifically sharp editing, developing and maintaining a solid rhythm that builds to a breathtaking crescendo that will send you out of the cinema with sweating palms and jelly legs.
For a while Miles Teller has mostly lurked, albeit effectively, in the supporting casts of films but now, like his character, he has his moment in the spotlight. He doesn’t disappoint, and gives an impressive performance in the lead role, successfully making Andrew Neiman funny and likeable but most importantly forcing us to believe how desperate he is to be the very best at what he does. However, the ‘Oscar bait’ aspect of this vehicle is heavily geared towards that of the supporting actor J.K. Simmons who plays the overbearing Fletcher. With his looming screen presence he simply commands every frame he is in, and gives the role a fascinating streak of unpredictability. You never know if he’s going to throw a cymbal at a student, spit expletives in their face or put a comforting arm around them, though it is rarely the latter.
Because of the niche subject matter, ‘Whiplash’ probably won’t get the extensive distribution of other nominations so make the effort to see it while you can. With just his second feature, Chazelle presents the plucky underdog of the season, flying the flag for small budget independent filmmaking, and brilliantly makes its intimate New York jazz environment a microcosm for achieving something meaningful in life, and gaining respect and validation for your efforts, whatever field they may be in. The nostalgic glitzy setting and smooth soundtrack hark back to classic cinema even though the themes and ideas at its double-beating heart are forever relevant.