Whiplash (2014)

Review #1,127

Director:  Damien Chazelle
Cast:  Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist
Plot:  A promising young drummer enrolls at a cutthroat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student's potential.

Genre:  Drama / Music
Awards:  Won 3 Oscars - Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing.  Nom. for 2 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay.  Won Grand Jury Prize & Audience Award (Sundance).  Nom. for Queer Palm (Cannes).
Runtime:  107min
Rating:  NC16 (cut) for strong language including some sexual references.

“Were you rushing or were you dragging?”

What if Birdman composer Antonio Sanchez walked onto the set of Whiplash?  That would have been intriguing.  In an odd coincidence, both Birdman and Whiplash are released here in Singapore on the same week.  They both feature the drums as an important form of aural and creative expression.  In Birdman, Sanchez’s drum-heavy score single-handedly raised or slowed down the tempo of the film, creating arguably the most incisively-paced film of the year. 

Whiplash, on the other hand, has Miles Teller playing Andrew, a drummer wannabe who dreams of being one of the greats.  He is coached and abused by his music teacher named Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) who tries to stop him from succeeding, if only to push him to work to his limits.  And then beyond.

Directed and written by Damien Chazelle, a wonderfully gifted young filmmaker whose sophomore effort is an indicator of great things to come, Whiplash appears to be a simple story portraying the tension between teacher and student, but turns out to be more than just that – it is also a movie about the fine line separating mutual respect and ugly mutiny. 

To call the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher a love-hate one is to reduce it to black and white, when it is far more complicated, one that is constantly clouded by judgment, passion, and motivation.  The shifting tension, if you will, and the twists and turns that the narrative take makes Whiplash an entertaining watch. 

The performances are intense, so is the film in a few occasions, particularly Chazelle’s use of narrative foreshadowing.  The final twenty minutes are tremendously exciting, giving Whiplash the triumphant finale that it deserves.  As a drama centering on music, Chazelle’s work is equally at ease navigating the emotions (Simmons’ performance is fascinatingly key to dictating how we feel) as well as engaging the senses. 

However, there are a few occasions when the film allows that little bit of dramatic inertia to creep in, losing its intensity or momentum.  But when it is in full gear, few films this year can claim to be as purely exhilarating. 

Say what you will about Fletcher’s bastardly methods in coaching his music students, but it makes good cinema.  Yet what further elevates Whiplash into potentially great cinema territory is Chazelle’s intimate, personable handling and melding of story, character and music. 

Verdict:  Intense at times, and equally at ease navigating the emotions as well as engaging the senses, this is an entertaining music-drama by a gifted young filmmaker.


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