The mad impresario subgenre gets a smashing contribution in the form of Damien Chazelle’s directorial debut and featuring an Oscar / BAFTA / Golden Globe winning performance from J K Simmons. Oscars and BAFTAs were also picked up for editing and sound mixing, and it’s a delight to report that WHIPLASH was an entirely deserving win in all three categories.
Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is a first year music student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in New York. His aspiration is to become a great jazz drummer, perhaps even one of the greats. One night while he is practicing he receives a visit from highly respected conductor / teacher and all-round terrifying force of nature Terence Fletcher (J K Simmons). Fletcher invites Andrew to be a part of his studio band, where students are regularly subjected to trials of humiliation as Fletcher strives for jazz excellence through a combination of high standards and outright sadism. Neimann makes the grade but turns out to be just as much the obsessive student as Fletcher is the obsessive teacher, with the pair ultimately threatening to cause each others’ downfall as the madness that so often seems to accompany genius (certainly in pictures like this) threatens to destroy them.
Prior to making WHIPLASH Damien Chazelle wrote the screenplay for GRAND PIANO, a fine Hitchockian thriller (with overtones of de Palma) which turned out to be my favourite film of last year. WHIPLASH is less thriller and more autobiography, with Chazelle having based the character of Fletcher on one of his own teachers when he was a jazz student. It’s a fascinating account of the lengths both teacher and student will go to in order to achieve excellence, depicted in an admirably brutal way. Indeed, despite the musical skill on display here WHIPLASH is unlikely to have parents encouraging their little children to take up the drums, at least not if they want them to be able to grow up leading a normal life.
Despite a fine script and all that award-winning editing, the success of a film like WHIPLASH is ultimately going to rest on the shoulders of its stars. Both leads here acquit themselves admirably. J K Simmons deserves his award, and hopefully his blood pressure is back down to normal by now after his utterly focused, frighteningly intense turn as Fletcher. Just as good, though, is Miles Teller, who played all his own drum parts and has the bigger job of having to display a considerable degree of emotional range, sometimes veering close to madness and dislikeability, while still keeping the audience on his side. It’s a more subtle performance than it first appears, and Teller provides an excellent match for Simmons.
Sony’s Blu-ray features a variety of extras, including a commentary track from Chazelle and Simmons, the original 17 minute short film on which the feature was based, a trailer, an on-stage Q&A from the Toronto Film Festival and Timekeepers, a 45 minute documentary featuring a plethora of drummers discussing their craft. The DVD has the commentary and the Q&A but the other extras are exclusive to the Blu-ray.
WHIPLASH is an intense, absorbing, breathtaking and fascinating look at the world of high-powered jazz musicianship. You don’t have to like jazz to get it. In fact I’ll admit I’m not much of a fan and I thought it was excellent. And in some ways perhaps that’s the greatest praise of all.
Sony is releasing Damien Chazelle's WHIPLASH on Blu-ray (all regions) and Region 2 DVD on 1st June 2015