Full metal jazz-it

Still of J.K. Simmons in Whiplash
Still of J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

‘Whiplash’ movie review

By Alex Stanton, Staff Writer


If I wrote that Whiplash is a movie about jazz drumming, that brief description wouldn’t be exactly accurate. The plot of first-time director Damien Chazelle’s film centres around a jazz musician who goes to extreme lengths to achieve perfection in his craft. It’s as much a love letter to jazz music as a film can be. Right from the ascending snare beat and the claustrophobic, shadow-drenched shot that introduces the film, Chazelle makes you very aware that this film is definitely not going to be like that one time at band camp.

At the start of the film, 19-year-old aspiring jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) has just been accepted into Shaffer Conservatory, a prestigious music school in New York City. As the fall semester goes on, he manages to catch the eye of Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), the conductor of the school’s finest jazz band. Neiman, who is a backup in his band, is handpicked by Fletcher to join the teacher’s own band as an alternate drummer. Shaffer’s jazz maestro is highly respected among his peers and deeply feared by his pupils, and it only takes one rehearsal with him for Neiman to find out why. Fletcher sees potential in his young drum alternate, but when it comes to pushing a talented artist to achieve perfection, just how far is too far?

Veteran character actor Simmons, who up to this point was best known for playing J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman movies, achieves his career-defining role with Whiplash. As Fletcher, Simmons isn’t a man, but a force of nature. He puts R. Lee Ermey to shame with his drill sergeant demeanour, snarling and prowling around the rehearsal space like a wild animal, barking bigotry and emotionally abusing students who don’t meet his astronomical expectations. Simmons completely owns every scene he’s in and his chemistry with Teller fuels the intensity and suspense of almost the entire movie. Teller does a convincing job of showing Neiman’s obsession with being great and the consequences that has on his personal life. The actor is also an experienced drummer off-screen, and he shines on the drum kit in Whiplash.

If the two lead performances are the soul of Whiplash, then the directing and editing are the heart. While the quieter drama scenes are well-crafted and have a fitting, dark, ambient piano soundtrack, the movie truly shines when the drum kit is on screen. Whether it’s during a rehearsal or a show, the shots are edited and framed in a way that focusses on the body languages and emotions of the musicians, as opposed to their virtuosity. These wise editing decisions turn musical numbers that could have easily ended up as glorified music videos into scenes of sheer intensity unrivalled even by the most explosive war films.

The original arrangements of existing jazz standards featured in the film are so obviously composed by someone who has a true passion and love for the genre, and that goes for Whiplash itself as well. It’s a passion project for Chazelle and the two leads, and no doubt the best movie of 2014.