It’s a film about a drummer. That’s the easiest way to sum up Whiplash. A film about a drummer. It’s hard to sell a film on that premise, and the easiest way to do so is to not make the film about drumming at all. True, you do see a sweaty Miles Teller (playing protagonist Andrew) turning his fists to bloody ruins in an isolated room as he drums for seemingly hours on end (beautifully shot and overseen by relative newcomer director Damian Chazelle), but this is but a nuance of wider themes that sporadically reveal themselves as the film goes on.
The plot is quite simple – Andrew wants to be ‘the best’ jazz drummer, up there with the great Buddy Rich among others. Being a freshman at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory, he is scrutinised by the infamous conductor Terence Fletcher (played by J.K.Simmons, more on that performance below) and the ride goes off at a madcap pace from there.
On the whole the plot moves with vigour and keeps you in a tight-knit snare-filled ball for a good hundred minutes.
Of course, Whiplash isn’t about the plot, just as much as it isn’t about drumming. It’s about the destructive nature of ambition and the sacrifices made to reach our goals. During a perfectly poised scene, a deliberately inexpressive Teller explains to his girlfriend the reasons why his lofty goals would never permit him to enter into a relationship. She was just a distraction, and would simply hold him back from achieving his dreams. The setting – two late teens sat in a bar discussing relationships seems like the twin of the opening to The Social Network, and here too Andrew’s singular drive is both admirable and relatively horrifying.
Miles Teller may well be overshadowed by his co-star Simmons, but he delivers a strong performance as Andrew. We see his innate fears quickly spiral into extreme manic frustration before being held being a mask of supposed optimism as he performs at Shaffer. His drumming is equally impressive though its inclusion is perhaps one of Chazelle’s best touches. The performances become their own soundtrack as it were; they can create tension within a few seconds, before delivering jubilation with the rest of the jazz orchestra’s entrances. The content of the film organically develops its own character. When Andrew is forced to start over because of his supposed incapacity to keep tempo by the overbearing Fletcher, the brief spasms of music reflect the frustration of the young drummer. When he is finally correct the release carries itself alongside the music. This all makes the ride more thrilling. Seeing the film get a nod for Best Picture was a welcome addition for a less, for want of a better word, mainstream film.
Finally one has to give credit to J.K Simmons for excelling in a part that may far too easily have turned into a Full Metal Jacket parody. Simmons is the turbulent foundation that the whole film is based on. He is the dark side of Andrew’s ambition, the architect of the destruction that a single-minded drive can cause. Oscillating between a cold fury and fake joviality, Simmons controls both the orchestra and the audience in the palm of his hand and wholly deserves his Best Supporting Actor win. If there’s one reason to go and see Whiplash, even if you hate the idea of sitting through a film about drummers, do it for Simmons. You won’t be disappointed.
PHOTO/Sony Pictures Classics