The Oscar nominations are out, and there’s one film nominated for Best Picture you’ve probably never heard of. Well, you might have if you’d read Tom Bangay’s film round-up of the year in these pages. He cited it as the best film of 2014. Here’s what it’s all about…
Maybe you always wanted to be a drummer. Maybe you responded well to the tense, rhythmic trailer. Maybe you love jazz drumming but found the percussive interludes in the Birdman a bit gimmicky. Maybe you liked JK Simmons from his work on TV and in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films but never saw him in a meaty role. Maybe you saw him beat Robert Duvall, Ethan Hawke, Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo to the Golden Globe this week and it got your attention. Maybe you’ve only seen Miles Teller in Divergent and are wondering what all the fuss is about. Maybe you’ve seen the promotional material, thickly patterned with raving testimony from its never-ending festival victory lap.
Maybe you like films.
If one, some, any or all of these things is true then you need to see Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle at the absurd age of 28, based in part on his own experiences in his high school jazz band. One hopes he exaggerated. Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a young drummer who gets into a prestigious jazz conservatory, home to the much-vaunted bandleader, Terrence Fletcher (Simmons). Fletcher is renowned for his exacting standards just as much as for the top quality of the musicians he produces, and Andrew makes it his mission in life to impress Fletcher and audition successfully for his studio band, as the next step on his journey to musical immortality. This is easier said than done, with Fletcher thinking nothing of throwing objects, slaps, swearwords, homophobia and misogyny around his rehearsal room if it will provoke the kind of fear and urgency that lead to dedication, which will in turn lead to improvement.
Like all of cinema’s great monsters, Fletcher’s credo is just seductive enough to be compelling – he sees his job not as a sympathetic teacher but as a creator of superlative musicians, by any means necessary, and in Andrew he finds a willing foil for his punishing, manipulative regime. He’s a boy dreaming of greatness and is bewitched by Fletcher’s cruelty, ready to sacrifice himself to the pursuit of artistry. He knows it can’t end well but he does it anyway.
This is a fairly tight, small film, with the two of them duking it out in rehearsal rooms and on stage; Simmons stands, totemic, in a black t-shirt, his shaved head and menacing biceps instilling fear. Teller is superb as Andrew, a sweaty, bloody mess of talent, insecurity and ambition. There are other characters – notably Andrew’s father and girlfriend – but this is a power play between student and master and all other distractions must be cast aside. Being about percussion, the film’s shot through with rhythmic energy, the camera not being afraid to go in close and move with the beat, and it occasionally resembles a sports film – the sheer violence and physical exertion required by top-level drumming are relentless. Whether or not this is an accurate representation of jazz tutelage is a question that some have used to berate the film but honestly, it’s irrelevant – this is a thriller, a fight for a kid’s soul, and neither side pulls any punches.
Musical choreography is a difficult thing to capture onscreen. Many’s the film that cuts from a tight shot of a flawless pianist’s hands to a shoulders-up shot of some A-lister sitting at a keyboard, emoting. But drumming is too visceral to fake badly and in this case I honestly couldn’t see the strings – how Teller and Chazelle accomplished this is beyond me but I defy you to finish the film convinced that Teller is anything other than a virtuoso jazz drummer.
Speaking of finishing the film: the last twenty minutes of Whiplash is already the year’s benchmark when it comes to breathless, tense exhilaration. In recent years, it really is a peerless finale. When the credits rolled at the screening I attended, they were met with the sound of the entire audience audibly trying to catch its breath, followed by thunderous, sustained applause. You will be blown away. Give Simmons an Oscar and try to imagine what Chazelle will be capable of in his thirties.
Whiplash is out today on general release in the UK, and has Oscar nods for Best Picture and Supporting Actor for J.K.Simmons, and BAFTA nominations for Simmons as well as Directing, Writing and Editing and Sound.