Film Review: Whiplash

by Sam Robinson

Rated MA15+. Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons. Directed by Damien Chazelle.

Whiplash opens with a black screen and the sound of a slow marching beat on a snare drum, which begins to accelerate, continues picking up the pace, and becomes aggressively fast.

Thus sets the tone for Whiplash. The film begins calmly enough, as loner music student Andrew Neyman (Teller) practices the drums one evening at the (fictional) prestigious Schaeffer Music Academy in New York. Suddenly, there’s a knock at the door and the school’s esteemed jazz conductor Julian Fletcher (Simmons) appears. This first meeting between the two is mostly relaxed, but as the film progresses it speeds up, and the pair develop a strained, painful, aggressive relationship.

Neyman begins an outsider at the Academy. He spends most of his time peeking through windows and around corners, and there are no friends in sight. He is keen on Nicole (Melissa Benoist) who works at the local cinema and she becomes his only friend. But there’s quite a transformation from Neyman throughout the film as he becomes Fletcher’s protege and aspires for greatness in a hugely competitive environment.

A drummer in real life, Teller is superb as Neyman. He shows his versatility as his role here is completely different to his cocky and sure turn as Sutter in The Spectacular Now. Also excellent is Simmons who plays this reckless, eccentric conductor. He is frightening at times and you soon forget that there’s only really two main players in this film. The back and forth between them and the arrogance that builds is gripping.

Chazelle (who is only 29 years-old!) has directed this masterfully for a relatively low budget film. He uses long, stationary, held shots which focus in on the intense dialogue between Neyman and Fletcher. There’s also super sharp close-ups of grainy music manuscripts, spit being emptied from brass instruments, sweat drops on cymbals – Whiplash looks spectacular. And the music is great – if you enjoy jazz or classic standards like Birdland or Caravan, you’re bound to enjoy this film.

‘Charlie Parker became “Bird” because Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head.’

This line becomes an important part of Whiplash, and it is spoken by Fletcher to describe how jazz legend Charlie Parker became ‘one of the greats’. It was through tough love and hard work. This is how Fletcher justifies the way he pushes his students, including Neyman.

It would be easy here to relate this film to Hebrews 12:7,11 –

‘Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? … No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.’

All of Fletcher’s tough love is given in order to make Neyman great. And surely, hard work pays off, right? Well, I’m hesitant to draw this connection because God’s ultimate characteristic is that of love. He loves us and cares for us, and he grows us through hardships because he knows the ways in which we will grow from them.

I won’t give spoilers, but it’s hard to know if there is in fact any love (even tough love) at all in Fletcher’s training and teaching techniques. He ‘pushes people beyond what is expected of them’, and is reckless, unpredictable, makes students cry and insults them with horrible and offensive slurs. I am thankful that our God is not like this at all, in fact, he only ever works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).

Whiplash is a superb film. Please be warned that there is a stack of strong language. The performances are excellent, engaging and the script is never lacklustre. I’m giving it five stars.

Whiplash is screening now in cinemas in the US and Australia. It will be released in the UK on January 16th, 2015.

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