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Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller; J.K. Simmons; Melissa Benoist; Paul Reiser.
Plot: A promising young drummer enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.
Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is probably the surprise of this year’s Oscar season, accumulating 5 award nominations including a nod in the “Best Picture” category. To-be megastar Miles Teller – of Divergent fame – leads the line on screen with this year’s favourite for the Actor in a Supporting Role category, JK Simmons, providing some world class backup. Whether you’re into jazz or not, you’re probably going to want to see this one.
Remember how the underdog story of Rocky in the late 70s was game changing in its gritty and down to earth approach? Well, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Whiplash is the modern equivalent.
Damien Chazelle and his cast and crew have produced a picture that retells the classic underdog story of strong american values like working hard and never giving up, and they’ve done it with a drummer trying to make it into a jazz band. My choice of words in the previous sentence was purposefully abrupt to illustrate the achievement of making a 2 hour film as enticing as this, while basing the story around an incredibly small and relatively unpopular genre in the contemporary music industry. Let’s face it, everyone likes Jazz a little, but it’s rare that you’ll find anyone under 60 that listens to it on their ipod or considers a jazz song to be their all time favourite piece of music – it’s just not popular. But, after sitting down to watch this one, I bet you’ll want to visit the next jazz night at your local bar. The point I’m making is that jazz music wasn’t cool and few people cared too much about it when this film was commissioned, yet the story entices and enriches while never being patronising towards what will vastly be a naive audience as far as Jazz goes. Throughout the picture we are invited on a ride of emotional turmoil and asked to question what parts of ourselves we’d be willing to go to in order to achieve greatness or even perfection. What would you do to be the best? Whiplash explores what it truly means to commit to your craft. Failed relationships and broken family ties are just scratches of the surface with regard to where this film bravely aims to go, and while success may not necessarily be in the realm of possibility for Miles Teller’s character Andrew, he’s going to make damn well sure that he gets as close to it as he can on both a physical and spiritual level.
Miles Teller is more of a comedic actor by trade – as is his co-star JK Simmons (Juno, Spiderman, etc.) – yet the journey we witness him go on and the depths we see him sink to in order to truly prove himself as a jazz drummer, are incredibly well presented by the 28 year old. Andrew (Teller) is the audience’s portal into this world, and it was drastically important to the script that we identified with him as much as I feel was encouraged in the best way possible. One huge plus with regards to this is that Teller actually drummed for himself and there was no use of stunt doubles in any of the scenes. Without Teller being a self-taught musician, the film simply would not have worked. Some of the most moving scenes, the real tough ones to watch, have the camera thrust into or besides the drums and in seeing the hard work of physical labour and pure determination Andrew puts in to his work encourages us to route for him. One particular scene that relied on his musical talent as a necessity was a three way drum-off (for lack of a better term) between Teller’s character and two competitors for the same seat in the band’s first line-up. Teller excelled as the exhausted yet wholeheartedly invested/determined character of the bunch and really opened up the space for JK Simmons to shine as an aggressive perfectionist seeking the absolute best from his students.
JK Simmons’ performance is no less than a revelation. The critical success he’s acquired from this performance is completely deserved because it not only illustrates his incredible emotional range that shoots him from aggressive to upset and right back again, but it also really hooks the story. In many respects, his character is used to change the direction of the plot in most scenes in which he’s involved. This requires a talented presence, and JK Simmons certainly showed that he was more than capable of defining his legacy with this magnificent showing. In my opinion, there’s not a single person who could take the Golden statue from him at this year’s Academy Awards and that will be of great importance to this movie for it may be the only award it gets, despite being quite sincerely incredible.
Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash shall go down as an important moment in cinema and its critical success supports that, but with the Academy Awards favourites – Boyhood, Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel – likely to sweep up, it seems like this modern day Rocky will more than likely be appreciated as time goes on for its timeless look, feel and approach with regard to the ever-so-typical Hollywood underdog story. This was a truly fantastic watch.