‘I want to be one of the greats,’ says 19-year-old jazz drummer, Andrew (Miles Teller), as he breaks up with his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) in a cafe. ‘I want to be great and it’s going to take up more of my time. So I don’t think we should be together.’ He’s not feeding her a line, just being brutally honest. The girl, who’s sweet and shy and not even sure what she wants to major in at college, is startled by such naked ambition. Her eyes widen and fill with tears as she realises that this driven boy is prepared to give her up in order pursue some kind of virtuosic glory, which may or may not ever eventuate.
This is a key scene in Whiplash, one of the year’s most exciting and electrically charged films. Admittedly, that’s a large claim to make for a little movie about a New York music student (Teller, who actually plays the drums), his abrasive teacher (J.K. Simmons), and a whole lot of banging and yelling in band practice. But the film is truly extraordinary. Without guns, knives or fistfights, Whiplash (which won both the Grand Jury and Audience prizes at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival) manages to be explosive and yes, dramatically violent – it’s just that the violence is largely emotional, and often self-inflicted. Student and mentor duel it out in a power struggle that’s edge-of-the-seat suspenseful and downright dangerous to the mental and physical health of the youngster.
Their battle is also exhilaratingly cinematic. Blood is literally spilled in this process, and we’re treated to many frenetic and thrilling montages of bleeding fingers, broken sticks and sweat splashing off fevered brows onto the snares. Bodies and minds are pushed to their absolute limits to produce a noise that, just occasionally, reaches the sublime.
The magnetic villain of the piece is Fletcher, the jazz orchestra leader (Simmons, best known as newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy, but already garnering Oscar talk for his bullish performance here). Clad in a tight black t-shirt, with muscles bulging and bald head shining, Fletcher regularly makes grown boys cry, and when they do, taunts them with phrases like, ‘You’re not one of those single-tear people are you?’ He bullies and humiliates students, excusing his behaviour with the rationale that this is what it takes to weed out the good from the great. ‘I push people beyond what’s expected of them,’ he explains. ‘There are no two words more harmful in the English language than “good job”.’ And if he breaks a few kids in the process, so what?
Based on his own experiences as a terrified music student with ‘ a fairly sadistic teacher’, Whiplash is written and directed by 29-year-old Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), who has said he wanted to depict the ‘physical anguish’ of musical training and performance. ‘People talk about jazz as a music of freedom but for me it was fear,’ he’s said. And though the fear in Whiplash is fuelled by Fletcher’s manipulative and explosive antics – barking racist and homophobic slurs, hurling chairs and slapping cheeks to make a point about keeping rhythm – the source of the terror is really the internal fear of failure; of being one of the good-but-not-greats. And the film always presents failure and obscurity as genuine possibilities – unlike so many films in which triumph of the talented protagonist is just a matter of time.
As the eager young protégé with masochistic leanings, Andrew has totally bought into Fletcher’s philosophy. He tells his dismayed family one night, ‘I’d rather die drunk and broke at 34 and have people at a dinner party talk about me [like Jazz legend Charlie Parker], than live to be rich and sober at 90 and have nobody remember you.’ The film works as a sly interrogation of the artistic mythology which drives so many people who engage in creative pursuits.
Is the cost too high? The beauty of Whiplash is that it’s ultimately less interested in answering that difficult question than it is in pitching two perfectly matched opponents against each other and watching them fight it out on centre stage in front of an audience in Carnegie Hall. The final showdown between these two unhinged obsessives takes the audience to the dizzying limits of our own endurance. And that’s a pretty big achievement for a drumming solo.
Whiplash is currently in national release.