Words: Brody Rossiter
BLOOD, SWEAT & DRUMSTICKS
Talent is a wonderful thing. No matter how great or insubstantial we may consider our own personal talents to be, they ultimately set us apart from one another. However, whether it is a drunken party trick or an expert commandment of a trade, sometimes talents are shared and individuals must further strive to be the best at what they have chosen to pursue. Inside the fictional Schaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City, vast music ability is the forte at large, but there are very few prestigious first chairs on offer for the musicians in residence – just how far must individuals go to earn their spot?
Young drummer and student, Andrew Neymar (Miles Teller) finds himself playing inside the revered practice rooms of America’s finest musical school. He is a meek and unremarkable individual, a slumping, pale-faced adolescent slinking through dark halls lined with the richest of rich mahogany and attractive members of the opposite sex. One fateful night Andrew momentarily attracts the attention of resident head-case and musical messiah, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) – an initially promising but ultimately frustrating meeting that sets in motion a cat and mouse search for approval and success on the part of Andrew. The malleable clay which Andrew began as slowly undergoes a gruelling metamorphosis into a lean, mean, drumming machine instilled with a newfound sense of hunger. Andrew even asks out the cute girl who mans the concessions stand in the local cinema. Melissa Benoist’s turn as the charming, Nicole, and the respite offered from the sequences depicting her relationship with Andrew, is deserving of more exploration than it receives.
Though Teller’s wide-eyed Andrew expends the lion’s share of literal blood, sweat and tears, Simmons provides Whiplash with its snarling engine, pumping his own brand of testosterone fuelled intensity through the pictures thumping narrative as infamous conductor, Terence Fletcher. Squeezed inside a tight black t-shirt, emphasising a surprisingly muscular frame for an aging music tutor, Fletcher is a phenomenal and terrifying presence, berating his parading students as though he were a drill instructor dragging his cadets through boot camp. His vocabulary viciously oozes with scathing and deeply personal slurs ranging from the homophobic (uses of the word “faggot” are copious), to the sexist, to the downright nasty as he questions why they are so inadequate and incapable – not just downgrading their respective abilities but their sense of self-worth. Fletcher’s menace is tangible and increasingly alarming as the after-effects of his scorn noticeably shape the young players’ abilities for the better and psyches for the worse.
Debates over whether the carrot, stick, or intense verbal thrashing should be utilised provide an important theme throughout Whiplash – relayed through Fletcher’s fondness for retelling an evocative anecdote involving legendary jazz drummer, Charlie Parker, and his own tumultuous, cymbal dodging journey to the top. Whether Fletcher’s antics are rough-and-ready encouragement, or insidious physical and psychological bullying from a respected individual in a position of power, is constantly up debate, and a truly immersive quandary which locates the viewer in both Andrew and Fletcher’s shoes – constantly asking “would you go this far?”.
There are no heart-warming moments of teacher-student bonding. Hints of friendship and patriarchal coddling are an illusion, a tool in Fletcher’s arsenal with which to expose then subsequently shame his students, as illustrated by an early scene in which Andrew is duped into revealing the melancholic constructs of his home-life only for them to be aired publicly as though they were articles shameful dirty laundry. Fletcher is a force of nature, a wolf conducting a band of sheep that have two options: grow some teeth or be ravaged.
Director Damien Chazelle shot this pounding symphony of melodies and machismo in nineteen days; a true feat, though ultimately a clear identifier of why Whiplash feels so frantic and full of urgency. It is shocking yet funny, incredibly insular though creatively bold, abusive and somehow cathartic – a picture filled with changes in tempo and exertions of force. The final relentless sequence of Whiplash is perhaps the pictures finest and most bombastic, but it is without doubt its most memorable passage of sound and fury that doesn’t just build to, but ultimately crowns, a thunderous cinematic crescendo of musical success and emotional distress.