Cert 15 | ★★★☆☆
Whiplash opens with a shot of 19-year-old Andrew (Miles Teller) practising the drums in a room in the Julliard-like conservatory he attends, apparently alone. He soon notices he’s being watched by Fletcher (JK Simmons), the notorious conductor of the school’s jazz band. There ensues a tense exchange in which Fletcher barks instructions at Andrew, teases him, and suggests he audition for his own band. The scene is set for a torturous master-pupil standoff from which everything else in the film becomes an unwelcome distraction.
Whiplash is unusual for focusing not on the achievements of a musical prodigy, but on the gruelling practice that comes before. Teller is utterly convincing as the shy newbie literally pushed to blood, sweat and tears in his quest to attain greatness. The film is essentially a claustrophobic chamber piece, set almost entirely inside the practice room; remarkably, it manages to draw great suspense from this dull premise. This is partly due to Tom Cross’s dynamic editing, perfectly in tune with the soundtrack, but mostly because of Fletcher’s unpredictable outbursts, as sadistic and verbally inventive as Malcolm Tucker’s in The Thick Of It, and played with menacing charisma by indie stalwart Simmons.
Director Damien Chazelle once struggled as a wannabe drummer, and his passion for the subject comes through here. Yet this is only his second feature, and it is marred by a few sophomoric details that detract from the central narrative. Andrew’s dad and girlfriend are lazy additions, there merely to illustrate the personal costs of Andrew’s career. A dramatic set-piece in the middle simply isn’t credible. Then there’s Fletcher himself, who tends increasingly toward caricature as the film progresses. Whiplash is the tight, partially brilliant work of a fizzing young talent, but the intervention of a script doctor wouldn’t have gone amiss.
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