Terrifyingly Brutal And Mesmerisingly Beautiful All At Once. A Masterpiece.
There is one school of thought that says the genius is all but equivalent to madness. Then there’s another that says genius is equivalent to almost having your head decapitated by a cymbal hurled furiously at great velocity.
So the story goes with Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker, the legendary saxophonist who allegedly only ascended to greatness when his bandmate, in frustration, threw said instrument ant his head, inspiring a year’s intense practice. This story, tall or not, is the guiding light for J.K. Simmons’ psychotic, shaven-headed and ripped music teacher Fletcher in writer/director Damien Chazelle’s magnificently compelling, if almost always excruciating to watch (in a good way), sophomore feature Whiplash.
Expanded from Chazelle’s short of the same name, a reference to the Hank Levy jazz classic, Fletcher is a terrifying force of nature, the Malcolm Tucker of the music world who will stop at nothing to maintain New York’s Shaffer Conservatory of Music’s number one ranking in the US, even if that means resorting to violence of both a physical and psychological nature.
Into the maelstrom of his elite jazz ensemble stumbles geeky new kid Andrew, another triumphant turn from The Spectacular Now’s Miles Teller. Idolising Buddy Rich, his goal is to become the best jazz drummer the world has ever known, despite a less than enthusiastic response from his extended family who are more interested in sporting achievement, it would seem.
When Fletcher encounters Andrew practicing on his own, late at night, he invites him to join the ensemble, and at first it appears as if he will be a supportive and constructive mentor. That mask drops almost immediately when Fletcher smacks Andrew about the face as hard as he can for failing to meet his beat. And then comes the torrent of colourful abuse screamed at a terrifying pitch, with neither gender, sexuality, religion nor race given a pass card. This is commando training, cymbal slinging included, and why any but the truly mad would endure it, for the sake of perfection, is what makes the film so utterly fascinating.
Chazelle drew on his own musical training for the film, but he was wise enough to get out and thank goodness for us, because despite his fledgling filmmaker status, Whiplash is nothing short of genius, a hurricane of a film that’s both alive with the joy and wonder of musical mastery, but also terrifyingly brutal to the point of watching from behind your fingers.
The music is sensational, and scenes of Andrew playing till his fingers bleed in order to keep his spot over the vultures waiting to take his place are devastatingly powerful. The abuse he endures from Simmons is unthinkable, and it’s not to long before this unhealthy obsession bleeds into Andrew’s budding relationship with cinema candy bar cutey Nicole (Melissa Benoist), to whom he behaves quite hideously.
All of the performances are uniformly excellent, with the central two-hander of Simmons and Teller equally terrible and incredible to behold. Theirs is both an abusive and strangely symbiotic relationship that will have you believe wholeheartedly that a mind-blowing later scene involving a horrifying accident could actually play out. The technical achievements on show in Whiplash are also superb, including the ability to make us believe that Teller is a genuine musical prodigy, but also the frenetic camerawork and sharp sound production that crafts a perfect symphony between sight and sound, marking it out as one of the year’s finest films so far.
Stephen A Russell