Writer Sian Brett takes a seat behind the drums of Damien Chazelle’s exposé of the cut-throat music industry.
Andrew (Miles Teller) is a student at Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in the country, where he is determined to become a professional drummer. Desperate to become a part of a jazz band run by hard-to-please Fletcher (JK Simmons), Andrew soon finds that being the best comes at a cost he never realised, as he alienates family, girlfriend and all relationships, not only in his attempts to be the best but also in his belief that he is.
Teller and Simmons’ performances are utterly outstanding. Simmons’ hard-ass conductor is full of such mean wit that he will have you wincing and laughing at the same time. Despite the palpable tension between the leads, Fletcher’s flawless delivery of some horrifically cutting, yet still magnificently witty, put-downs still manage to make you laugh. Teller’s expressions of pain as he attempts to drum better, harder, faster, is unparalleled by anything I’ve ever seen in a film about the music industry. The chemistry is so spot on, with Andrew constantly trying to please his mentor whilst simultaneously believing he is worthy of the approval he desires so much. It’s a film of two performances, complimenting each other like the perfect outfit, neither working without the balance the other provides. And even though so much of the action is focused on practice rooms, and the repetitive nature of rehearsing, it never gets boring. The intensity of the rehearsals we see on screen mean that for those 106 minutes it becomes, like Andrew, all I cared about.
The musicians on screen are played by either working musicians or music students and the songs rattle around your head for days after until the double time swing beat becomes just as important to you as it is to them. The exact precision of playing instruments at this level is displayed amazingly by Damien Chazelle’s direction and attention to detail. The story itself has a beautiful kind of symmetry, which might only hit you a few days later as you mull it over, proving that this is a film that will stay with you forever.
Chazelle’s direction during the drumming sequences took my breath away. The quick cuts, the imagery of sweat- and blood-stained drums, the punctuation of every new beat with a jump to a different part of the kit, is stunning, particularly remarkable when you note that the film is only Chazelle’s second directing credit. The whole film was shot in only 19 days and the flow of the film leads to such a heady climax that the man next to me in the cinema actually said ‘shit’ out loud.
It’s a perfectly wrapped parcel of a film. It manages to not take itself too seriously, the performances are simply stunning and the direction adds a whole other layer to the story, just like good direction should. It is quite simply a stunning piece of film making.
Photos: Whiplash (movie stills)