“Oh my dear God! Are you one of those single tear people?”
That’s how sadistic music instructor Terrence Fletcher (JK Simmons) addresses his newest pupil, Andrew, played by actor Miles Teller (Divergent).
This is only the after-burn of one of Fletcher’s brandings, but is typical of his hammer-of-the-Gods-style tuition. He is a kind of sophisticated berserker, presiding over the frontlines of a top American east coast music conservatory.
Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, screenwriter for The Last Exorcism Part 2, features an armoury of the kind of vibrant, throat-stabbing language Simmons was born to deliver. If his banter in such movies as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man and the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading was an hors d’oeuvres selection of his capabilities, Whiplash is a banquet. Think Mr Holland’s Opus live from Mordor.
Simmons switches like a master between occasional refrains of reassuring, almost mystical encouragement and targeted, personal-soul violence, not unlike Judge Dredd selecting “stun”, “high-ex” or perhaps “incendiary” on his weapon in hellish Mega City One.
Whiplash could be the greatest movie about a musician in years – and it’s about a drummer.
The drumming itself is outstanding, played by Nate Lang, who features as Carl, the core player Andrew must replace in Fletcher’s band to reach his dream. Teller’s mime is solid; he has been a rock drummer since he was 15 and underwent rigorous training with Lang, a drummer since age eight. The training montage and drummer battle scenes get seriously visceral as Andrew screams his way to mastery of the “double-time swing”.
If you’re not into technical terminology, there’s little fear of being left behind. I am a mostly self-taught musician – not a jazz-monk, at any rate – and my non-musician companion loved it to bits. The finale is something to observe from a levitating on the edge of the cinema seat viewpoint. The Fletcher/Neyman duel peaks as the drumming leaves Earth in a time-bending, high-speed AK-47 blast-beat that lands wholesale on an Elysian plain of chaotic synergy.
To apply an appropriate quote, from X-Men: First Class: ‘True focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity.”
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