Music, in all its forms, has been with cinema right from the very beginning. From the concert halls and fairgrounds of the earliest screenings, to the pounding scores of film’s most iconic moments, the relationship between the two mediums cannot be overstated. And yet, until now the very physicality of music has been largely under-represented in its visual form – a sizable gap then for young new filmmaker Damien Chazelle to explore with his Sundance favourite Whiplash.
Named for its most frequently visited piece of music, Whiplash follows the uphill struggles of Andrew (Miles Teller), an up-and-coming jazz drummer striving to be the very best he can be. However, once he finds himself as the newest recruit of infamous hot-head conductor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Andrew’s ambitions balloon, forcing the pair to become locked into a fierce mental battle of wits. With his training progressing rapidly, and Fletcher’s patience with him thinning by the day, Andrew soon begins to feel the pressure building as he teeters ever-closer to his total breaking point.
To call Whiplash a tense film may well prove to be the understatement of the century. Director Damien Chazelle layers his work with such precision that this gradual mood of fear ever-rising in the background is not always noticeable, but when it hits, it really hits hard. Chazelle builds and builds, always toying with and pushing past his previous tipping point. The constant dramatic crescendos never once disappoint, frequent in number and always more intense and crushing than the last, making for an insanely twisty experience of a film. Oddly enough, like its star, Whiplash very often leaves one out of breath and gasping for more. It’s a truly winning structure that Chazelle masters straight from the off, dragging his audience almost willingly into the mad, mad world of big band jazz.
It’s rare that both a filmmaker’s style and their actors all have a chance to shine simultaneously, but this is very much the case here. Into his melting pot of obsession and legend, Chazelle tosses his leads, Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, two understated stars in the making, giving the performances of their careers. Teller’s awkward Andrew stands as a loner driven by the urge to make himself a true hero of jazz, a role that demands both dedication and soul – two things that Teller luckily possesses bucket-loads of. The fierce energy he brings to the role is deeply contagious; the line between character and actor drifting almost completely out of view.
Alas, Teller’s lead would not stand with the force he does without the yang to his ying, J.K. Simmons’ ferocious teacher Fletcher. The two bounce off of one another in natural harmony, well and truly nailing their rapport and allowing Simmons’ villain to really dig deep under the skin, pushing him into the realms of the iconic. As with his structure, Chazelle layers his characters, their humanity always present, just with Fletcher, one has to look a little harder. These are easily two of the best performances of the year, and two that stand as very much opposites. Teller’s rampant underdog energy, and Simmons’ sudden and commanding rage manage to become somehow complimentary in their conflict, and this is all down to Chazelle’s stunning script, and the masterful acting talent on display.
Very much a purely instrumental musical, Whiplash fires itself firmly into the hearts and minds of jazz fans and non-lovers alike. With Chazelle it’s all about the darkest emotions that lie within obsession, and the exploration of their physicality through music. Even as he hurtles towards a show-stopping finale relentlessly wrought with passion, Chazelle maintains the solidly hidden exterior he began with. Even with some slightly underdeveloped story strands, as a break-out work, Whiplash is a near perfect creation that demands public attention and earns all of its Oscar buzz.
Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, is showing as part of the BFI London Film Festival on 15th, 16th & 18th October. Tickets are available from whatson.bfi.org.uk.