Whiplash is One Room With A View’s best film of 2015, beating all other competition since its UK release date of January 16th. That’s all the more impressive when you think how tough the competition has been over the past year. Mad Max, Star Wars, Carol, Inside Out, Birdman, and so many more stellar pieces of filmmaking were released, but ultimately Whiplash nudged ahead in the insanely close race that was 2015. It’s a stunning debut feature from a relatively young director; Damien Chazelle is, incredibly, only 30 years old. Talented bastard.
Whiplash came out of nowhere to clinch three Oscars, an amazing feat considering its far from populist subject: jazz drumming. It’s the most intensely gripping and engaging story this year over a man stranded on Mars, the most anticipated new Star Wars and a fight to ensure a girl can at some point actually feel joy again. The score is phenomenal, the relationships subtle and original, and honestly… it’s just really fucking good.
Whiplash follows Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) in his endeavours to break into the world of jazz drumming at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory music school. Being accepted into Shaffer isn’t enough for Andrew. He wants to become part of Terence Fletcher’s personal studio band, the creme-de-la-creme of the already elite Shaffer students. The opening scene of the film sees Andrew practising on his own at night, when Fletcher comes by the room and watches him play. From these opening shots until the credits roll, Chazelle subjects us to an almost unbearable pressure, reflecting back onto us what Andrew is put through at Shaffer. Fletcher may be Neiman’s ticket to the big time, but he’s also an absolute monster.
It isn’t long before the mask of civility falls away from Fletcher. He’s soon hurling cymbals at heads, belittling fat people and shaming teenagers in front of their peers until they are reduced to tears. He does these things in the name of jazz, he claims, pushing people to their limits to get the very best out of them. If Jo Jones had never thrown a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head, he argues, then Parker would not have gone home and pushed himself, striving to prove Jones and all the other doubters wrong. The world would be a worse place having been deprived of Bird’s genius. There’s merit to the argument, and clearly that approach worked in the case of Charlie Parker. Yet when you are actually confronted with Fletcher employing such a method, you see how troubling it really is. However, Damien Chazelle takes this moral quandary one step further and makes it all the more interesting by throwing another element into the mix: Andrew Neiman is also a total dickhead.
At first, we’re pleased for Andrew. He’s practised hard and it’s paid off. He rides that wave of confidence and gets himself a date with the girl who sells popcorn at the cinema, and he’s on his way to somewhere he wants to be in life. He’s our traditional hopeful protagonist. After an awkward moment of arrogance on his date, followed by an unceremonious dumping of the poor girl in favour of his music, we begin to be less on his side. By the time he’s told his football-star cousins that their talents are fleeting and essentially worthless, and thrown a paddy over Fletcher bringing another drummer into the studio, there’s little left to like in Andrew. Yet we still want him to succeed. Both because Fletcher is so much worse, and – crucially – because he is undeniably a supremely talented musician, one who deserves to be recognised whether he’s a nice person or not.
What makes Whiplash so fascinating is the way it objectively looks at what it takes to be successful without bringing morality into it. At the end of the day, for the majority of people who are successful, whether they are good or bad people is irrelevant. What matters is that they worked incredibly hard to reach that point, harder than 99.9% of the other people in that field. So often films follow a good person struggling in a lowly position, and we watch them find success that they deserve because they’re lovable, or we see a bad person in a position of power fall because they’re bad, and hurt people. In real life, that isn’t how it works – if you’re willing to put in more work than anyone else, if you relentlessly pursue your goal, you are more likely to succeed. You have earned that success.
The final shots of the film are a closeup on Andrew and Fletcher’s faces, Andrew smiling, seeking his approval, and Fletcher nodding in response. Despite the fact that they’ve essentially worked to ruin each other, they find a mutual professional respect after Andrew’s performance. Fletcher has worked hard to be respected in his field, and Andrew yearns for that respect, especially from someone in that position, regardless of what the teacher may have put him through. In return, Fletcher puts aside his personal feelings towards Andrew as he cannot deny he is an incredibly talented musician. To them, the music is more important than personal feelings or morals. In the real world, that’s so often the truth. That’s why Whiplash is this year’s number one, because it hits a truth that the others don’t get at. For a director as young as Chazelle to so balance making the characters thoroughly unlikable, but also immediately and unrelentingly engaging, in a debut feature is an incredible achievement.
Of course, he didn’t pull that off on his own. Miles Teller turns in a fantastic performance as Andrew Neiman. One that’s all the more impressive when you consider that he’s only been acting for a few years, and that he performed most of the drumming in the film himself. He sickeningly slides from likable underdog to emotionally stunted twat, to arrogant narcissistic arsehole, through to a little-unhinged-obsessive in a fascinating way. Then there’s J.K. J.K. Simmons obliterates every other actor in the film with a performance that, had it not been rewarded with an Oscar, would’ve incited rioting in the Dolby Theatre. He completely dominates his scenes, controlling the room he is in. He dominates his scenes, totally controlling the room he is in; even when he isn’t hurling Gunnery Sergeant Hartman levels of witty abuse at people, he is still quietly, powerfully menacing. It doesn’t hurt that he also got absolutely ripped for this role, so has an immediate physical presence before he opens his mouth. Chazelle is also sure to give us regular glimpses of Fletcher pleasantly interacting with non-students as well, driving home that he has absolute control over himself and his emotions, that his abusive methods are absolutely a decision he chooses to make willingly. It’s one of the most terrifying, brilliant and memorable performances of the decade so far. J.K. Simmons deserves every ounce of praise he’s had poured on him for it.
The characters move through scenes that are highly technically impressive. Rooms are often beautifully shot with soft, warm orange light that is in turn completely fitting and entirely at odds with the tone of scenes as they flip from lush jazz sounds to screaming torrents of abuse. The editing is masterful (it won the Oscar there too, and deservedly so), zipping from extreme macro photography closeups of one drum to another, to a cymbal to a foot pedal, drumsticks flying across the skins and blood dripping from Andrew’s fingers. And of course the soundtrack is superb, a mixture of the jazz standards played by the bands seen throughout the story – most notably ‘Caravan’ and, of course, ‘Whiplash’ – complemented by an original score by Justin Hurwitz and Tim Simonec that slots right in alongside the tried and tested classics.
All of these elements – the direction, performances, music, editing, cinematography, writing – all of it comes together in the final scene of the film, which is undoubtedly one of the best scenes of 2015. The relentless pressure Chazelle has subjected the audience to for the past 90 minutes all comes to a head on stage at Carnegie Hall. In this final, dazzling, battle of wills between the two clattering arseholes, Neiman’s incredible ‘fuck you’ performance directed at the Machiavellian Fletcher is portrayed almost entirely through drumming and charged looks, but filled with so much more meaning than most dialogue-driven scenes – and it’s spectacular to watch. Teller and Simmons are both electrifying to watch. Who comes out on top? Neiman? Fletcher? Music? Us? If you don’t think a film about jazz is for you, that’s fine. Whiplash is about so much more – after all, it’s the best film of the year.