Whiplash (Damien Chazelle, 2014)

In the history of cinema, there have been a small number of characters so full of evil they barely resemble human beings anymore. We’re talking Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched, Ian McDiarmid’s The Emporer. I think we can add another one to the list after seeing Whiplash.

J. K. Simmons’s portrayal of jazz conductor Terence Fletcher is absolutely remarkable and his Oscar nomination is fully deserved. Channelling his previous performance as newspaper owner Jameson in the 2002-2007 Spiderman trilogy but taking it to another level, removing the caricatured anger and replacing it with psychopathic traits of real malice, we are treated to a truly great cinematic performance.

The story charts 19-year-old Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) as a first-year jazz student at the prestigious (and fictitious) Shaffer Conservatory music school. He lands a place in Fletcher’s jazz orchestra, an orchestra renowned for both the high performance standard and intense rehearsal conditions. Happy to meet the challenge, Neimann quickly realises he’s going to be pushed beyond the limits to achieve the thing that all aspiring musicians crave: perfection.

Teller’s performance is very assured, showing admiral talents in both his musicianship (he’s a self-taught rock drummer though had lessons to learn jazz drumming) and his portrayal of a young man trying to find the strength to pursue his dream and avoid a nervous breakdown. He has a bright future in the business, and this is an excellent way to announce yourself to the wider industry.

The film has come under criticism from avid fans of jazz for misrepresenting particular anecdotes used in the film and apparently poor musicianship from the lead characters. I’m no fan of jazz so I won’t comment on something I’m not confident on, but from my point of view the abilities of the performers was not something I felt was detrimental to the film at all. Indeed, it made me want to explore jazz a little more. But anyone can see this film is not about jazz. It’s about bullying, using jazz as a medium to tell the story. The jazz industry would do well to not underestimate the audience so much as to assume they wouldn’t get that.

I can’t recommend this enough to fans of great character portrayal. If Simmons isn’t awarded with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor next month it will be the wrong decision.

Whiplash is on general release globally now.

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