Review: Whiplash

Awash with buckets of blood, sweat and tears, Whiplash is a visceral vision of the quest for artistic perfection.

Awash with buckets of blood, sweat and tears, Whiplash is a visceral vision of the quest for artistic perfection. Brutish Miles Teller excels as prodigious young jazz drummer Andrew Neyman, who is coached, coaxed and criticised by terrifying maestro Terence Fletcher (an incendiary performance from J. K. Simmons). A time bomb ticking down for 106 minutes, Whiplash is a measured study of strict master/apprentice dynamics, the efficiency of modern learning environments, and the crippling impact of perfectionism. The performances in Whiplash are, in a word, astounding. Rehearsals place newbie Neyman in the hot seat at his prestigious New York City music school, where the studio band’s ferocious conductor Fletcher turns the anxiety up to 11. Stunted interactions with his sports-obsessed family leave the painfully honest Neyman on the outer, and will seem all too familiar to viewers who dared prefer the arts to AFL in high school. Peers are but competitors in this cutthroat boys’ club, where a sense of unfriendly rivalry pervades every interaction and pushes students beyond their known limits, physically, psychologically and emotionally. It’s a provocative comment on the nature of education. Will wielding abuse and instilling fear make or break the student, the child, the human? Loaded with claustrophobic close-ups and obvious editing, Whiplash lives up to its name stylistically. The frantic pace of performance sequences creates nail-biting nervousness as jazz swells, drums threatening to overwhelm. Smooth, cool Starbucks-style shtick this ain’t. This is a Kenny G-free zone. Whiplash celebrates past greats like Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich and John Coltrane, who lifted the NYC scene to dizzy (Gillespie) new heights in the 1940s and 50s. Director Damien Chazelle crafts a love note to the fading art form, one that’s been close to his own heart since a youth spent drumming in a high school jazz band. Teller’s musical prowess is also noteworthy as it is he who plays most of the laborious solos, save for a few complicated close-ups requiring hand stand-ins. Sympathies ebb and flow for Fletcher and Neyman: two driven, wilful, self-righteous and astonishing talents. Often it’s hard to look past their flaws and faults (y’know, like people in real life). Fletcher’s superfluous tirade of biting insults and gross homophobic slurs would make even Old Testament God go “dude, come on.” Still, it’s impossible not to at least recognise their sheer, stubborn, even enviable determination. Surely there’s an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor due for J.K. Simmons’ tiny forehead vein too. This film is a whirlwind, and you don’t have to like jazz to be swept up in its wild grasp. Anyone who’s wanted something so bad they suffered sleepless nights, awful anxiety and persistent tunnel vision will see a little of their best and worst selves in Whiplash. Whiplash is in cinemas now. Rated MA

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