A movie about a college jazz drummer from an unknown director, starring Miles Teller and J K Simmons doesn’t exactly scream mainstream hit.
But take our word for it, Whiplash, which picked up both the Grand Jury and Audience awards for best picture at the Sundance Film festival this year is surprising, intoxicating, euphoric and will undoubtedly be the greatest jazz drumming movie you see all year.
Teller plays Andrew, a promising drummer at a prestigious music college, Simmons is the notorious hard-ass conductor of the in-house band.
Structured like a sports movie Whiplash conforms to and messes with the genre audaciously. The plucky underdog who desperately wants to make the team (band) is a semi-sociopathic cocky little asshole, the coach (conductor) who becomes his mentor is a relentlessly cruel bully responsible for the psychological destruction of at least one student.
Punctuated with violent,orgiastic scenes of Andrew practicing so hard his hands bleed, it’s a study of the cost of excellence – whether it’s ok to destroy every other part of your life if you’re good enough at one thing.
Developed from a short that screened at last year’s Sundance, director Damien Chazelle makes the the frenzied drumming scenes immediate and impossibly cool for even the least rhythmic audience member.
Teller, who performed a good chunk of the drumming himself, is excellent, never quite likable but so single minded and determined it’s impossible not to root for him.
Simmons is a revelation, increasingly demonised, looming in yellows and greys as the film progresses. Despites some deliciously caustic put downs (‘limp-dick, no-notes, flatter than their girlfriends, flexible-tempo dipshits’) he’s never more terrifying when he’s feigning composure, offering only a slight frown and the repeated mantra ‘not my tempo’.
Sure, the ending, joyful, glorious, as it is, might not be entirely psychologically satisfying; Whiplash is a triumph none the less, which will either make you want to listen to Charlie Parker records, or screw over your friends and family and die drunk and alone in your '40s just to know you were the absolute best.
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