Whiplash (2014) Review – A Bully or the Ultimate Motivator?

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Whiplash is written and directed by Damien Chazelle who has a very limited filmography.  The one film you might know him for is as one of the writers of The Last Exorcism Part II (2013) but I’m stretching a bit with that one.  There is certainly no hint he would make a film like this although he did make a short film of the same title in 2013.  In the background however is Jason Reitman as executive producer so someone clearly had confidence in the project.

The film centres around an up and coming jazz drummer, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), who is attending the much vaunted Shaffer Conservatory when he gets the chance to play with the school’s lead jazz band.  This is after he his heard practicing by the Conservatory’s star professor, Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), who has direct and blunt methods when it comes to getting the best out of the students.

I came to this film blind.  Odeon was doing it’s second ever Screen Unseen event where you have the opportunity to watch a film ahead of its official release date.  The only catch is that you don’t know what film it is.  All you know is that it won’t be a mainstream Hollywood movie and given that last time it was Nightcrawler (2014) I though it would be worth a shot.  Anyway this time it was Whiplash which according to the Film Distributors Association is due for release in the UK in mid January so quite a coup for a movie fan like me.

It is an excellent film.  The first things that struck me were the quality of the music reproduction and the savage humour of the Fletcher character.  They should really have been awkward laughs given the situation but I didn’t feel a shred of guilt.  The lines were cutting and sharp and the sign of a man fully confident in his position.  Miles Teller gives a good performance and no doubt some blood and sweat as well as the drum play is as intense as you like.  He is however overshadowed by Simmons and the film belongs to him.

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The movie looks like it was filmed by someone who loves jazz music.  I say this because of the obsession the director has with capturing the fine detail of the drum playing, the preparation of the band and the opening of the instrument cases.  The most intriguing aspect of the film was the relationship between Fletcher and Neiman.  There are two ways of looking at it.  My first reaction was that Fletcher is a bully who thrives in his position of power as the band leader / senior professor.  He gets his kicks from exercising that power and torturing his latest victim to see just how much he will take.

As the film develops the relationship proves to be far more complicated than that.  In what some might see as a perverse way they need each other.  They both have an underlying drive to discover greatness.  Fletcher perhaps doesn’t have the talent himself but believes without doubt that he can drag that greatness kicking and screaming out of a musician who wants it enough.  Neiman is clearly keen to excel and it is Fletcher who gives him that push.  The desire burns bright in part because he struggles for attention within his own family who I don’t believe understand or have much interest in music.  Fletcher becomes something of a surrogate father figure – Neiman is desperate for his approval, something which he has no chance of getting at home.

This creates a perfect storm and drives Neiman to accept abuse that to anyone else would be intolerable and I certainly would never want to be treated in the same way but the film asks what does one need to sacrifice to achieve true greatness.  I have no particular criticisms to make of the film beyond the minor characters have little depth and are given very little to do.  For me though that doesn’t distract from the overall impact of the film.

Amazingly according to Box Office Mojo this film has made a little under $4m since its release on October 10th in North America.  It reminds me of the problems The Guest (2014) had trying to get a foothold as a small independent release.  I hope it does much better when it is released in the UK because it is one of the best films I have seen this year.  Not sure if I can include in my top 10 for 2014 because it hasn’t been officially released?

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