Whiplash

Loud, intense and extremely bold – and that’s just J.K. Simmons! Whiplash is as good as (if not better than) you have no doubt already heard it is.

by Owen Hughes (@ohughes86)

whiplash 2Yesterday, the 55 films up for multiple and/or individual Oscar’s at the 87th Academy Awards were announced. There were plenty of notable absentees:  there was no sign of Nightcrawler, Gone Girl or Mr Turner for best picture;  Failed Critics Award winner Jake Gyllenhaal was snubbed for a best actor award;  everything wasn’t awesome for The Lego Movie as it was missing from the animated movies category;  remarkably there was no best editing nomination for Birdman;  and there were no nominations for Under The Skin for, well, any category at all.

As happens each and every year these days – and will no doubt happen again when the winners are finally announced in February – the actual candidates selected caused a proverbial shitstorm on Twitter. However, of all those to miss out in some way, if writer and director Damien Chazelle’s first feature film for five years (and only his second overall) were to have missed out on a best picture nomination, we may well have had a full blown cyber-riot on our hands. Whatever a cyber-riot may be.

In fact, Whiplash has, in total, received five nominations this year. It’s competing for:  Best Motion Picture of the Year;  Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (JK Simmons);  Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published (Damien Chazelle);  Best Achievement in Editing (Tom Cross);  and Best Achievement in Sound Mixing (Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins, Thomas Curley)). Each and every one 100% deserved.

Adapted from Chazelle’s own Sundance Film Festival 2013 award winning short film of the same name, Whiplash actually received its first full screening exactly one year ago today at the 2014 incarnation of the same festival. It won both the Audience Award and the coveted Grand Jury Prize for being a “film of uncommon skill that showcases two compelling characters and pulses to a dazzling and irresistible beat.” A line that I’m finding incredibly difficult to disagree with. It has since gone on to be nominated for or an uncountable* number of other awards.

*as in, I couldn’t be bothered to count them, but you can see them all listed on Wikipedia.

Loosely based on Chazelle’s own personal experiences, it stars rising actor Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman, a talented aspiring jazz drummer studying at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory. Not content with simply being great, he dreams of becoming one of the greats and is prepared to sweat, cry and bleed all over his snare and cymbals in order to achieve this. J.K. Simmons, reprising his role as Terence Fletcher, the fictional New York music academy’s most revered conductor, recognises the raw talent in Neiman and invites him to be his new drum alternate. Abused (both verbally and physically) in front of the class by his new mentor, Neiman learns at his own expense that nothing less than exceptional will be accepted by Fletcher.

And so begins approximately 90 minutes of some of the most intense acting you’ll see all year. Simmons absolutely batters you with his performance, much like Fletcher’s approach to training his students. A barrage of expletives and belittlements are spat out of the screen with such ferocity and twisted humour that you can almost smell the beads of sweat trickling out of poor old Neiman as he is intimidated by the tight black shirted and imposing maestro.

It’s also a character steeped in controversy. The insults are not limited to obscure jazz musical references that fly over the head of the uneducated audience. An abject smattering of homophobic slurs bruise the keen protégé’s ego as much as the chair flung at him during his first proper band session would have had it connected. It’s been argued that the use of such derogatory language was unnecessary; that the point could still have been made without the repetition of particular phrases. Especially as a number of professional musicians have been in the news recently dismissing the film’s portrayal of music teachers as inaccurate. Drummer Billy Brown states in The Guardian this week:

“There are purists who think there’s only one way to play jazz. None of them are as militant as Whiplash’s tyrannical band leader, Terence Fletcher, though.”

http://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2015/jan/16/drummer-billy-brown-whiplash-review

And this is the thing. It’s less about the precise language that Fletcher uses. It’s not even about the tempo that the perfectionist bangs on about. It’s about forcing Neiman to be even better than the absolute best that he physically can be, pushing beyond his limitations of what’s achievable to meet what is wanted. Much the same way an army drill sergeant would break down a soldier to his core before building him back up, step by step, or drum beat by drum beat. Whatever the character of Fletcher is literally saying during the practice sessions most of the film takes place during is less important than the observable method he’s using.

But the film is not just about one man and his violently obsessive teaching methods. It’s about art and exceeding mere performance. It’s about the pitfalls and glory that can all come with committing your life to a passion in the hope of achieving a recognised greatness. Above all else, the film is about music – and the inspiration, joy and the pain it can bring with it. The open and rhetorical question is asked; to what cost do you value your ambition?

I’ll just put this out here right now. I hate jazz. It’s a musician’s music and though I can play a few instruments (badly), I just don’t get it. To this philistine’s ear, it sounds like a bunch of individually impressive musician’s each playing their own tune all out of sync with each other, resulting in a mess of noise. I appreciate just how much skill, dedication, practice and immense talent it takes to be a good jazz musician, and that it’s more about achieving a high art than perhaps any other form of music. The transcendence from air flowing through a metal tube to an unquantifiable uniqueness above playing a toe-tappingly good song. But please, don’t play it around me. The fact that I could not only stand it during Whiplash, but outright loved listening to this incredible music and have gone on to spend most of the morning listening to clips of drumming on YouTube, it highlights just how much of an achievement Whiplash is. At least, to me. On a personal level.

Another achievement of course is the fact that Miles Teller is actually playing those drums. Yes, believe it or not, that isn’t a CGI’d Teller or a 40-year old stand-in wearing a badly fitting toupée. Who’d have thunk it? There is, however, a reliance on some clever editing to make it appear as though Teller is playing most of these tracks in one go. As talented as he may be – and as dedicated to his role as he was to spend so long in a drumming-boot-camp – he isn’t. Or, rather, the thundering drum solo for which the film will most definitely become famous was not all done in one take. In fact, just that single sequence took two days to shoot and one immeasurably gifted editor (Tom Cross) to stitch together. Nevertheless… WOW! Whilst Neiman might have been a dick, shrugging off girlfriends and family in order to pursue his goal more narrowly and impress the unimpressable Fletcher, Miles does a fantastic job at trying to keep time with the Oscar-worthy J.K. Simmons’ tempo.

Can I see Whiplash picking up the best picture Oscar in a month’s time? If there’s any justice in the world, yes. Honestly, it seems difficult to look past the buzz for Richard Linklater’s Golden Globe winning Boyhood. Not that the film chosen by the Academy is always the best, of course. Nonetheless, I would be surprised if this exhilarating and thrilling drama didn’t turn at least a few of those nominations into fully deserved wins.

Whiplash is out in UK cinemas today and you can listen to Owen review the film on the next episode of the Failed Critics Podcast.

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