Before Damien Chazelle’s Sundance show stealing effort, a film about people and percussion instruments seemed like a rather difficult affair to display, with the only entry to touch on the matter being Drumline, a film so laughable it deserved its own sting to end on. Made perfectly clear in its opening moments, Step Up with sticks Whiplash most certainly is not. As we slowly glide in on a practise session between student and teacher, Chazelle’s stunning second directorial effort is carrying a very different tune, and it’s one played out by two of the most compelling performances you’ll see in years.
Already having his own experience in the competitive territory of jazz music, Chazelle sets the stage brilliantly establishing the practise room of a revered New York music school as less of a band class and more of a battlefield with its own war music. Wielding the sticks in one corner is Miles Teller as determined drummer boy Andrew Neyman, a student who hits the skins with everything he’s got in the hopes for success. In the other corner stands destructive conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a feared and revered member of the school who will either mould or mangle Neyman to his liking, which he does to terrifying effect.
Teller does brilliantly as Neyman, going through his own personal hell but your main focus is on Simmons’ Fletcher as the beast dragging him through the flames, screaming and snarling at his new student and anyone else that slips up. Wielding a ferocity not seen since R. Lee Ermey yelled his way through Full Metal Jacket, this psycho in a black blazer is a stones throw away from that character and is just as feared because of it. A drill sergeant with a song sheet, Simmons’ Fletcher will stop his class and your heart every time he raises his fist, setting a silence so deathly it’s enough to hear a pin drop. It’s this one gesture that builds the anticipation for a moment that can have you loving or loathing the character. Splitting sides and crushing dreams is always uncertain when Fletcher raises what might as well be the hand of god but you’ll be waiting with bated breath to see the outcome. Either way, Teller is the one to get the brunt of whatever Simmons spews and he deserves just as much recognition for working with it.
Therein lies Whiplash’s other great instrument. Whilst this music loving monster helps a great deal to make the film, Teller pulls his dramatic weight just as well as the other half of this unorthodox master/pupil pairing. Not only being worn down from the battle with his corrosive conductor, Teller’s percussive prodigy is constantly dancing on the line that should be drawn between passion and obsession. Is his playing that he’s genuinely putting his blood, sweat and tears into going to drive him into the ground, or is he still doing it for the same reason he sat down at his first drum set in his younger years? It’s crystal clear that he’s not doing it for anyone else - this isn’t a cliche effort to get the girl or win his father’s approval, and at times we realise it’s not to even to get his nemesis’ head nodding. Newman wants to be the best and that’s all there is to it, and Teller does this search for perfection well, perfectly.
Every slam, crash and wallop at the drums is one that’ll rattle your chest and have hairs stand up, even more so thanks to the stunning way its displayed. Tom Cross’ editing runs at a speed only matched by Teller’s bone-aching skill with the sticks and Simmons’ venomous comments that are thrown his way during it, highlighting both brilliantly. Zipping round the practise room to see sheets turn, spit fall from the brass section or sweat dance off Neyman’s kit, Cross aids this thrilling watch and turns it up to eleven by doing so. By the end of it all you’ll be exhausted and enthralled all at once thanks to a familiar story stripped down to its simplest form. One of passion and compulsion, victory and defeat, and Whiplash hits every beat perfectly. Encore Chazelle, encore.