Instruments are destroyed, hands are bloodied and emotions are pummelled in Whiplash, the exhilarating new musical drama from American director Damien Chazelle. The film stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman, a student jazz drummer who dreams of being one of the jazz greats and soon finds himself under the abusive tutelage of jazz conductor Dr. Terence Fletcher.
From the film’s first scene in which the camera adopts Fletcher’s point of view as he closes in on Andrew thrashing out a fast-tempo drum beat in a darkened rehearsal room, the director creates a brilliantly intense atmosphere of blood, sweat and tears in a very male world of brutal dedication and cruel psychological mind games.
Fletcher (an Oscar-winning performance by JK Simmons) hurls insults and inanimate objects at his jazz students with a sadistic relish as he physically, psychologically and verbally cows his young band members into terrified obedience. In a memorable scene, Fletcher subjects his drummers to a punishingly long audition while repeatedly exclaiming that it’s “not my tempo” until one of the drummers perfects his “tempo” – the drumming equivalent of attritional warfare.
Throughout the film, the director suggests that all other aspects of a person’s life should be entirely subordinated to the higher pursuit of artistic perfection. That does mean that weakly drawn secondary characters inevitably take a back seat in a film more concerned with the spectacle of belligerent teacher versus bloody-minded student.
At the film’s end, I left the auditorium sweaty, exhausted and reeling as if from the resounding impact of a cymbal thrown at my head. Whiplash is a truly enjoyable movie-going experience which definitely played to my particular tempo.
The biblical reference to a monstrous sea creature should give you some sense of the scope and gravity to which this film aspires, addressing numerous issues all at once, including complex family ties, jealousy, bitterness and love.
This film is a giant in a multitude of ways, most obviously length. But also in the insightful way which it comments on certain issues. Squarely within its sights is the corruption and ugliness of Putin’s Russia. Power and money rule every scene. Set in bleak outhouses and cold municipal buildings, one man struggles against the state. His lawyer and best friend have come to help fight the local government bureaucrats/gangsters who are trying to evict him.
Corruption seeps into all the film’s relationships, in a world where nobody has clean hands. The drinking is prolific – yes, Russia is renowned for heavy boozing, but here it is taken to the limit. People slosh around shouting and fighting, bitter at their lot.
Angry men tied up in their own sense of masculinity leave no room for tenderness or affection, and relationships suffer accordingly.
In the midst of this harsh adult landscape is a teenage boy, beleaguered and ignored, fighting to find his voice. His teenage rebellion and yearning for love seem ever stifled by this bleak, harsh, modern Russia.
It’s a depressing affair but the plot, actors and powerful state-of-the-nation ideas make this film feel urgent. It will knock you off your feet just as the bracing Siberian winds seem to batter its protagonists.
Paul Thomas Anderson has a rightful claim to be the heir to Stanley Kubrick, with genre-defining films that provide artistic vision, commercial success and have critics salivating with anticipation.
He employs a level of artistry and storytelling which made even Adam Sandler shine in Punch-Drunk Love; maybe the best rom-com ever made.
The drug-induced highs and moral lows of the 80’s porn industry never looked as groovy as in Boogie Nights. His 2007 masterpiece, There Will Be Blood, and the less grandiose, but equally compelling The Master are further evidence of his artistic talent.
Normally Anderson writes his own scripts, but this film is a take on a novel. Thomas Pynchon, famous for his indecipherable plots, gets transferred to the screen in awesome style. The film follows ‘Doc’, a stoner, and a doctor, of some description, on California’s beaches. Joaquin Phoenix relishes the part and, aside from the 70’s nomenclature, his dialogue flows as effortlessly as the billowing clouds of weed from his wide twisting mouth.
Above and beyond the supremely complex plot are a raft of hilarious, vicious and absurd 70’s cliches. You soon become entranced by dialogues which ask more questions than they answer. Moronic outbursts and knowing asides start to make you realise this isn’t so much a crime thriller as a tour de force in filmmaking. Plot is secondary to the characters.
This won’t please everyone, but I found myself entranced by the dialogue and itching to pick up a Pynchon novel, just to see if it is as funny and ramshackle as this epic movie.
By Duncan Hall & Robin Davies