‘I can’t think of one musician who ever really paid any attention to anybody standing in front of the band with a baton.’
I saw a trailer for Whiplash with my dad when I was in New York last October and was enthralled. We tried to see it while we were there but it only had a small release and we couldn’t find it anywhere. So when it came out last weekend, we were at the lunchtime showing in the Lighthouse, coffees in hand, very excited.
It’s so rare and wonderful when a film exceeds your expectations and Whiplash is one of those films. Set in New York, it stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman, a nineteen-year-old drummer in his first year at Schaffer Music School, one of America’s most prestigious music conservatories. Andrew idolises Buddy Rich and dreams of eventually being in the pantheon of great jazz drummers.
His aspirations are realised when he is accepted into the Studio Band conducted by Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons). In an early scene, Fletcher encourages Neiman, faking a sense of patience and camaraderie, before hitting him and reducing him to tears in front of the band, leaving the audience feeing like they’re watching Full Metal Drummer. It’s the beginning of a destructive pattern intended to break Neiman’s spirit and motivate him to become the best he can be.
Dad was the perfect cinema partner for this film. He started playing jazz professionally in his teens in 1960s Belfast. Through his gigs and music around the house, I came to love jazz, and that helped me to appreciate certain aspects of the film. When Fletcher fires a player for being out of tune, I knew the player wasn’t, but Fletcher’s point was that if the player didn’t know whether he was out of tune then he had no business being in a jazz orchestra. Fair point, harshly made. And every time Fletcher calls out Neiman, saying he’s dragging or rushing, in each case he’s right. Fletcher may be a bully, a completely unsympathetic character, but he’s an excellent judge of musical ability and technique. And Neiman isn’t flawless either; he sleeps through his call time, loses sheet music during a competition. Not the behaviour of a fully committed student.
All that being said, you don’t need an obsessive interest in the drums or any knowledge of jazz to appreciate this film. The relationship between Fletcher and Neiman is complex and takes many turns from outright abuse to grudging acceptance yet remains mostly believable, and is compelling enough to draw in any cinema fan. If you’ve ever been passionate about something, if you’ve ever been competitive, you’ll relate in some way to Neiman’s ambition and Fletcher’s insistence on excellence.
Each member of the film brings their own element of musical expertise. JK Simmons has a music degree and studied conducting. Miles Teller has been a self-taught rock drummer since he was sixteen. Director Damien Chazelle drew on his own experiences in a jazz orchestra to conceive, write and direct the film. And most of members of the two orchestras in the film are professional musicians. (And a special shout-out to the editor, Tom Cross, who cut the last drum solo so expertly that even if you were hunting for flaws they’re hard to find.)
This perfect storm of creativity and experience is evident throughout. It’s a fully realised story, well-written, authentic, inspirational, challenging. Although Whiplash is nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, I reckon it’s unlikely that a niche film like this will win. (I’d love to be proved wrong.) However not only will this movie make it onto my top ten list for 2015, I think it will stand the test of time and have a place in my favourite films list from now on.