The young man leans forward over the drum kit, sweat plastering his hair to his head, his face in a grimace of pain. His drumsticks are moving impossibly fast in a frenzied, mad beat. The tension builds as blood drips from his right hand onto the brass cymbal.
19-year old Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller) is a first-year jazz student playing drums at the esteemed Shaffer Conservatory music school in New York. He’s bright-eyed and hopeful, aspiring to become on the greats such as his idol, Buddy Rich, who earned the title as “the greatest drummer in the world” for his mad drumming solos. When Schafer’s renowned conductor, Terrence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons), invites Andrew to be part of his prestigious studio jazz band as an alternate drummer, Andrew believes his career is finally on track.
At first, Fletcher appears encouraging and friendly towards Andrew, but soon Fletcher’s true colours as a verbally and sometimes physically abusive teacher is revealed. Fletcher mocks, insults, humiliates. He throws at chair at Andrew for not keeping perfect tempo in the Hank Levy piece, Whiplash.
“Were you rushing or were you dragging?” Fletcher yells at Andrew. “If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will gut you like a pig. Oh my dear God – are you one of those single tear people? You are a worthless pansy-ass who is now weeping and slobbering all over my drum set like a nine year old girl!”
Andrew works harder and harder at trying to impress Fletcher and cement himself as the band’s core drummer. He breaks up with his girlfriend in order to spend more time feverishly practicing, whipping himself into a frenzied determination, single-minded in his pursuit to be the best. The excruciating effort is clear and when his hands start to bleed he merely plunges them into a bucket of ice, and starts again. A poster on his bedroom wall quotes Buddy Rich: “If you don’t have ability you end up playing in a rock band”.
Fletcher’s tyranny eventually catches up with Andrew, who discovers the teacher’s treatment of his students has previously led to tragedy. Is Fletcher right when he says that he is only trying “to push people beyond what’s expected of them”? Are his extreme methods simply an effort to produce genius? There are no two words as harmful in the English language as “good job”, he tells Andrew.
Whiplash is a mesmerizing film about the painful journey musicians undertake to be the best, and how far someone has to go to reach the top. Miles Teller is magnificent as Andrew. Up to now, Teller has played non-descript roles in films such as Divergent, but this movie shows what he’s capable of. Teller has previous experience as a rock drummer but jazz drumming is something completely different. He spent around two months in a ‘boot camp’ with a real jazz drummer, working on his percussion for four hours a day. What the audience sees on screen is in fact Teller drumming, although clever editing is used to bring together different takes of various sections of the songs. The magnificent solo towards the end of the film was shot over two days.
Whiplash is unlikely to win to the Oscar for best film. The competition is simply too stiff, though some critics have said this film really ought to take home the honour. J.K. Simmons is the firm favourite to win the Oscar for best supporting actor having made a clean sweep at all the other recent awards ceremonies.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser
SA release date: 20 February 2015