Having already made his first and comparatively more sombre full feature in the form of 2009’s Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, American filmmaker Damien Chazelle returns with Whiplash (2014). A bruising and bracingly melodious cat and mouse story, it continues the director’s fascination with the way music simultaneously inspires and affects everyday life. With what has already proven itself to be a firm festival favourite and triple Bafta/Oscar winner, Chazelle’s latest is an exemplary study of the both fruitful and dangerous ramifications of pure, naked ambition, one that skilfully marries a dark sense of humour with viciously high tension.
In what promises to be the first major role in his rise to stardom, Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a budding, 19-year-old drummer who’s enrolled at a prestigious but cut-throat music conservatory in New York City that’s regarded as one of the greatest in the world. Passionate about his ability, Andrew aspires to the virtuosic heights of American jazz musician Bernard “Buddy” Rich, and refuses to settle for mediocrity in the process. It’s at the conservatory that his dreams of greatness are shepherded by tempestuous musical instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who leads the top ensemble at the school and has particularly unorthodox methods of realising his students’ potential.
This relationship, between a teacher who offers much needed guidance and a student with talent ripe for sculpting, sees the boundaries between mentor and prodigy becoming increasingly blurred as Fletcher’s pursuit of perfection turns dangerous. Structured like a typical sports movie but scripted, shot and (superbly) edited by Tom Cross like a thriller, Whiplash is an expertly crafted examination of the questions regarding whether talent comes naturally or whether – through unforgiving means – it can be taught. As the brilliant but unapologetically brutal Fletcher, Simmons delivers an astonishing performance of physical and mental supremacy, embodying a character whose muscular, imposing physique and controlling hand gestures offer external signifiers of his foreboding nature, not to mention what’s sure to become a quotable line for the ages: “not quite my tempo.” Loosely based on Chazelle’s own experience as a wannabe drummer, what begins as a standard novice-to-maestro story slowly, achingly, turns into something of two-pronged portrait of two men desperate for both the pursuit and preservation of perfection.
What’s all the more fascinating is how Andrew and Fletcher are yin and yang, with the former craving the approval of the latter just as much as the latter demands and exploits the best from the former; a protégé primed for ensuring the future of great musical accompaniment remains very much intact. While Chazelle goes to gruelling lengths to explore Andrew’s willingness to push himself as far as he can go, as well as the psychology behind an at once intimidating, cruel and motivating figure such is Fletcher, he lets the surrounding characters and their relationships to the protagonist fall by the wayside. This is best embodied by an underdeveloped love interest for Andrew (played by Melissa Benoist), who succumbs to a generically ingrained narrative template when Andrew’s motivation and arrogance reach fever pitch. This, however, doesn’t detract from Whiplash, which remains a riveting and compulsive film of sustained ambiguity, skilfully encapsulated in a prolonged final sequence that’s a crescendo of audacity and skill both in front of and behind the lens.