So I called it right on the Oscars – Eddie Redmayne and Birdman. I hadn’t seen Whiplashbefore the ceremony so had no opinion on J. K. Simmons, who won Best Supporting for his bullying, foul-mouthed music teacher.
For a movie shot in only 19 days, it certainly delivers and some of the big blockbusters could learn from the passion of this young director. For Whiplashis a film centered around passion – specifically that of aspiring young musicians to make it in the professional world. Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a 1styear at one of the great American music colleges, where the renowned teacher, Terence Fletcher, is on the look-out for the next Charlie Parker. As he says later in the film, to justify his Machiavellian behaviour: ‘I never really had a Charlie Parker. But I tried. I actually fucking tried. And that’s more than most people ever do.’
He stalks the corridors of the practice rooms seeking talent and catches young Andrew unaware, who stops playing, much to Fletcher’s annoyance: ‘I ask why you stop playing and your version of an answer was to turn into a wind-up monkey’. This is just a taste of what is to come.
His methods are far from conventional – he enjoys pitting rival drummers against each other – one minute you’re in and the next out – and humiliating band members for being out of time and out of tune. Both he and Andrew justify their respective obsessions with the famous Charlie Parker story when, as a 16 year-old saxophonist, his band-leader lobbed a cymbal at him for losing his tempo. He quit the scene for a year and practised hard, to return to critical acclaim. So it is with Andrew, who spends hours on his drums until his fingers are dripping with blood.
Simmons plays the mercurial and masochistic Fletcher with Oscar-winning gusto; he even manages to look the part with a saturnine bald head and cruel smile. The juxtaposition of his character with Andrew’s, a shy, motherless boy who even has difficulty asking a girl for a date, is well drawn: however, they both share a narcissistic belief in their own abilities and are prepared to achieve success whatever the cost. Andrew demonstrates his determination when he somehow manages to get to the all-important competition in the nick of time, crawling in battered and bleeding, having crashed the hire car.
So the battle of the bands becomes a contest between the two: master versus pupil. The torment and torture meted out by Fletcher to Andrew is as psychopathic as any horror movie; yet Andrew demonstrates that he is equally able to dish out his fair share of ruthlessness if he is to achieve his dream.What starts out as being a simple narrative of one boy’s struggle to succeed is masterfully transformed by Chazelle – who also wrote the screenplay – into a psychological study of the characteristics of success. The film is less than a simple good versus evil, but rather a more complex web of vulnerability and single-mindedness, exhibited by both characters. The final scene – a brilliant knife-edge denouement of the struggle for supremacy between the two musicians – is both complex and discomfiting: it challenges our expectations and delivers quite a punch. The question remains as to who is the winner here. This is a film I could see again.