In cinemas now written and directed by Damien Chazelle, starring J.K. Simmons, Miles Teller, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
The familiar tale of an inspirational teacher is given a dark spin in Damien Chazelle’s smart film. Andrew Niemann is a pupil and jazz drummer at the Shaffer Conservatory one of the foremost music colleges in the States. He is given the opportunity to join the stage band who enter national competitions and is run by notorious conductor Terence Fletcher. Here he soon rises from being alternate to main drummer but Fletcher is a harsh taskmaster who for the first part of the film appears to be ruthless if not criminal in his treatment of the musicians.

The early rehearsal scenes –from which much of the pre publicity was taken- render Fletcher almost totally unlikeable yet equally fascinating. His cajoling of pupils stretches to hurling objects, profanity and insult filled rants as well as subjecting them to merciless repetition. The cowed looks of the other musicians are an early clue; never has a music session looked so full of fear. Later we witness Niemann and two other drummers competing to play to the speed Fletcher requires- a session that lasts several hours and ends up with blood on the cymbals. At this juncture you wonder where the film is going; with little background on the teacher we can only guess at some kind of psychodrama or worse will unfurl.
Instead in a fascinating twist Neimann starts to become as hungry for the `tempo` as his teacher culminating in a cracking sequence where he is increasingly late for a key performance and then attempts to play even though he’s been in a car crash! This in turn sends the film in another direction leading to an inevitable (musical) confrontation between the two on stage in a dazzling finale. It is certainly an unexpectedly involving film as Damien Chazelle’s spare natural dialogue and inventive direction make both the musical and non- musical scenes sizzle with energy.
J.K. Simmons’ initial impact is visceral like some predator looking for chinks in people’s armour but across the middle of the film as Fletcher appears a little more vulnerable you begin to warm to him. Brilliantly Chazelle swipes this away later on revealing just how conniving Fletcher is and Simmons rises to every twist perfectly. As Nieimann Miles Teller has to convey agony and awkwardness in equal measure which he achieves so convincingly that his later descent into primal ambition is quite a shock. When the two square up to each other it is powerful stuff.
Elsewhere Chazelle makes sub plots feed the main story well; rather than an adjunct they play into Niemann’s personality changes as we see his initial fumbling asking out of  Nicole (who works in his local cinemas) morph into an arrogant summation of his ambition. We only see two of their dates but they are a complete portrait of the relationship. Niemann’s standing in his extended family is also essayed in a single superbly rendered dinner party scene.  There is necessarily less of Sterling beyond the rehearsal room but almost everything we do see plays into his one dimensional ambition, even his apparent upset over the death of a former pupil which is not as it seems. Excellent turns from Melissa Benoist as the radiant Nicole and Paul Reiser as Niemann senior add a much needed portray real world perspective removed from the intensity of the rehearsal room.
Whiplash (the name comes from a jazz track the band play) deserves credit for not playing to the obvious even if its structure does parallel a more conventional movie. Chazelle makes the pace busy (jazz like?) and even at the end denies us the audience standing, cheering and applauding at what they’ve witnessed as they surely would. The film just cuts off before we see it. There are gaps that leap months and thereby avoid too much repetition so we focus on what’s important. Equally Fletcher’s motives which you might expect to stray into riskier territory remain purely musical.
You’re highly likely to enjoy the music whether or not a jazz fan; the selected tunes are as full of drama as the script and Chazelle directs these with vigour and close ups illustrating the speed of the music. Even if you don’t care for the music the film could be seen as symbolic of the pitfalls of ambition and pushing things too far. Whiplash is a hypnotic, edgy and strongly performed film well worth the plaudits it is currently receiving.

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