Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014)

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Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle (2014).

Score: Exactly what it says on the tin, elegantly executed.

Whiplash tells the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a novice drummer who starts attending the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music, where he meets the extremely talented but hideously abusive band conductor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons). Neiman’s ambition is to become one of the greatest drummers in history, like his heroes Charlie “Bird” Parker and Buddy Rich. Fletcher keeps pushing Neiman harder and harder and abusing him verbally with the excuse of getting his full potential out of him, while Neiman becomes more arrogant and alienated each time. The movie explores the ideas of what makes greatness, what greatness is worth, if anything at all, and where it is that instructors should draw the line to attain that greatness in their apprentices.

The movie’s strengths are attention to musical detail and character development. Sound production and mixing, as well as the musicians’ performances are stunning, and the music is delightful to hear both for jazz fans and for newcomers. Miles Teller does a great job at playing drums, though it’s understandable that body doubles and prerecorded tracks were used.

The tension and conflict between Neiman and Fletcher is excellently built up and resolved. Chazelle avoids clichés and easy ways out as the plot zigzags its way to the stunning ending. Look out for the visual reference to Private Pyle and the false foreshadowing involving the car accident. Fletcher’s dialogue is spot-on and swerves creepily between the sweet and the wild animal, a feature that can be sadly common in coaches and teachers in competitive environments. But Neiman is no saint either. Neiman grows arrogant and cut-throat as the plot moves on, leaving aside his family, his social life and his own health on his way to greatness. In the end he likes playing the same game Fletcher is playing, and they’re perfect for each other. This grey on grey continues until after the credits roll. There is no straight answer to what happened.

Like Dark Confidant wisely said: “Greatness, at any cost”.

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