You need to know nothing about jazz drumming to enjoy Whiplash. In fact Whiplash is as much about jazz drumming as a sports drama could possibly be. Actually, this film packs in all elements of a sports drama. Think a gifted player (in this case a jazz drums player), a grizzly coach screaming from the sidelines, some brutal training and all of that leading up to a final showdown.
So don’t expect to drown in some lilting, romantic jazz tunes as you settle down to watch Whiplash. Director Damien Chazelle doesn’t even give you a minute to ease into the story. Much like 19-year old Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) who hammers on double speed drumbeats, when he has no time to think or react, as his menacing teacher Terrence Fletcher (JK Simmons) screams and nearly spits on his face. He just plays. You just watch.
Whiplash seems to make a mockery of the cheesy, mentor-apprentice dramas, that boast of some of the most inspiring lines written for cinema. Here, at one point, Fletcher, in an attempt to explain his military approach towards music training, tells Andrew, “There are no words in the English language more harmful than good job.”
There are plenty of tears though. Not the lump in throat kinds, but tears that will terrify you. And they come mixed with droplets of blood and sweat that appear on Andrew’s cymbals now and again, when he drives himself to a crescendo to get the right beat. Is fear a better teacher than encouragement? That’s the question Whiplash throws at you. Very anti-Dead Poets Society, this.
Andrew’s scary determination and obsessive ambition to be “one of the greats”, so much so that he kills a budding relationship lest it comes in his way, seems to find a perfect match in Fletcher’s menacing bully who hurls a chair at anyone that cannot keep the beat. This mentor-apprentice relationship is laced with mind-games, almost a case of one-upmanship. Andrew maybe getting raked over the coals by Fletcher, but he’s no victim either. The beauty of Whiplash is that it doesn’t take sides. It simply tells a story and raises questions like does one have to go through the worst to become the best? Where does one draw the line between disciplining someone and demolishing someone?
Miles Teller brings Andrew to life, his steely determination that makes him vulnerable, perfectly expressed by the maturity on Teller’s very young face. He does most of the drumming himself and the technique he displays is a marvel. Andrew is distanced about everything else but his music and Teller gives this care-a-damn attitude adequate expression, without coming across as audacious. Simmons, who many remember as the jovial dad from Juno, shows us one of his most brutal faces. Fletcher is a complex character, shrouded in ambiguity beneath that demonic exterior, and Simmons deftly switches emotions, but never allows us to forget how ferocious he is. Melissa Benoist as Andrew’s could-be girlfriend is perfectly cast and makes her limited screen-time count. As does Paul Reiser as Andrew’s father Jim Neiman.
Shot in just 19 days, the film has the momentum of a thriller. Director Damien Chazelle deliberately keeps it very little about the music, almost as if to say that real love for music doesn’t let you get lost in the romance of music. It’s a picture of the excruciating pain behind the music, bleeding fingers and bleeding hearts. These 107 minutes are absolutely allergic to clichés. Whiplash leaves you overwhelmed and exhausted, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself hooting for an encore....