Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Drums, they permeate the movie ‘Birdman’, pounding a pulsating rhythm. Drums, they are the heartbeat to ‘Whiplash’ a tale of an ambitious and single minded Jazz drummer and his pursuit of greatness.
I was trying to find some reference points to jazz drumming in movies and the best I could come up with initially was Tom Everett Scott’s character Guy in ‘That Thing You Do!’. What that film reinforced was the idea of the cool, that subjective undefinable thing that some jazz musicians resonate and others attempt to imitate. Cool is decidedly absent in ‘Whiplash’. The atmosphere is humid and hostile, sweat drips from Miles Teller’s face and cascades down onto the symbols. J.K. Simmon’s character is a creature who comes from the hottest part of hell.
Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a student at Shaffer Conservatory, the most elite music school in the United States. Neiman is a loner by choice; he is devoted to becoming the next Buddy Rich. Whilst playing alone in a rehearsal room his is spotted by the notorious band leader Terence Fletcher. Fletcher doesn’t tell Neiman he’s impressed, but a few days later calls him along to audition for a understudy position as second string drummer in ‘his band’.
J.K. Simmons plays Fletcher as the teacher we deserve. This is no sunny “Oh Captain, My Captain” inspirational leader. Fletcher is a malevolent figure in black; he presents this devilish drill sergeant persona with a pursuit for perfection. Fletcher berates his band members with homophobic slurs and crushing put downs. Everybody is scared, petrified of the repercussions if they play out of tune or make a mistake. J.K. Simmons is astonishing, in his career to date he’s usually been consigned as an actor on the periphery, in ‘Whiplash’ he’s like a mad dog that’s been finally let off the lead, this is the role he was born to play. Simmons’ musical background enables him to lend the role real authenticity. He is scary real.
‘Whiplash’ presents the dark side to the pursuit of greatness, when you sacrifice everything for the end goal, which to others seems like an impossible dream. It transpires later in the movie that Fletcher is attempting to coerce the best from his students by ratcheting up the pressure. He wants them to be the cat’s pyjamas. Unfortunately that comes with some cost
Critically ‘Whiplash’ is scoring high on the all important percentage scores of Rotten Tomatoes and IMDB, and is scooping up a ton of accolades. I’ll add my grain of sugar to the ‘thumbs up’ pile. I like the film and I can’t see many people not liking it.