Thursday, 15 January 2015

Whiplash - Dir. Damien Chazelle

Damien Chazelle’s exhilarating new film has been riding a critical wave after premiering at Sundance (scooping up the festival’s grand jury and audience prizes on its way) and may just make it all the way to Oscar night. On the surface Whiplash may look like a jazz musical but in reality, it’s the most adrenaline fuelled roller-coaster since Gravity.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is an ambitious drummer at the prodigious Shaffer Conservatory music school who gets the opportunity to play in the lead jazz band, under the conductorship of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Fletcher sees some talent in Andrew, but how far is Andrew willing to go to become the best.
That is the question that Whiplash proposes: how much should one sacrifice to achieve greatness. The film doesn’t provide a definitive answer but explores the question in such exhilarating fashion. By that token, Fletcher is both the villain and hero of the piece, punishing Andrew beyond acceptable standards whilst also giving him the opportunity to be extraordinary. Whiplash acts as a modern companion piece to The Red Shoes: replacing ballet for drumming and love for adequacy as the counterpoint to pre-eminence.

J.K. Simmons is rightfully picking up awards for his towering performance but Miles Teller is very much his equal, commanding the screen during the drumming performances and translating the blood, sweat and tears of Andrew into his reactions and outbursts.

Like Gravity, Whiplash has an elegant simplicity that some may mistake for a lack of complexity, but in fact gives the film clarity of purpose and focus. It’s fair to say that Andrew’s relationship with cinema attendant Nicole (Melissa Benoist) is a little underdeveloped, but it also serves its purpose in the film without unnecessarily cluttering the narrative.
Not only does the jazz music offer a glimpse of a less prominent (in modern popular culture) musical genre, but it adds an extra dimension to the filmmaking. Both the editing and directing make use of the music to create a synergy between what we see and what we hear. It would be very easy to film the musical performances in such a way that would fail to draw the viewer in, but editor Tom Cross and director Chazelle ensure that both of these elements work to make the other better (even if there are a few too many crash zooms for my liking). Teller is a convincing drummer virtuoso, thanks to his prior experience and an intensive jazz bootcamp preparation, but also to Cross' skill in weaving together segments to create the overall performances.

Whiplash is not merely another “sports movie”, with jazz music instead of football, baseball or ballet dancing, it’s a tense, horrific and electrifying film that deserves its spot amongst the Hollywood heavyweights.

Whiplash is released in UK cinemas on 16th January 2015. Images courtesy of Sundance Institute and Sony Picture Classics; trailer courtesy of Sony Picture Classics.

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