Reviews - Whiplash
Reviewed By Vaughan Ames
The film is full of jazz music, full of drumming – not everyone’s cup of tea – so why has it had such success? Why has it won 78 awards, including 3 Oscars? I think a combination of two great characters, some great acting and a plot that makes you think.
The story is about a young student, Andrew Neyman, who wins a place at a top music academy in New York to study music – specifically drumming. His dream is to become "one of the world's great drummers": he hopes to be taken on by Terence Fletcher, the famous instructor at the academy. Fletcher is a very driven mentor, whose techniques to bring out the best in his students include throwing chairs at them and humiliating them in front of their fellow students. He tells Andrew that Charlie Parker only became great when his bandleader threw a cymbal at him; the humiliation drove him to practise harder and surpass himself. "The two worst words in the English language are 'good Job'", says Fletcher.
Fletcher’s techniques certainly work on Andrew; we see him practising until the blood literally drips from his hands; threatened with being dropped from the band, he crashes his car trying to get there, manages to get to his drum kit just in time, but his injuries prevent him from playing...and Fletcher drops him.
The last section of the film sees Fletcher (sacked after Andrew's father convinces him to complain about Fletcher's techniques) playing piano in a dive bar. Andrew (now working in a burger joint) comes across him and they talk. The grand finale is set up when Fletcher offers him the chance to play at Carnegie Hall in a big band he is conducting. I won't tell you exactly what happens as I really hope you get to see this film on TV at the least, but suffice it to say their battle hasn't finished yet...and there is a great drum solo! (I never thought I would say that! Even as a drumming fan myself, solos just don't work ...normally!)
The character play works so well because both are driven. Andrew is a self-obsessed bighead: putting his cousin down who is doing well in a low league football, his cousin challenges him to "play with us"; Andrew replies "that's three words you will never hear from NFL"! He dumps his girlfriend because she 'will' stop him practising in the future. Fletcher, meanwhile, really believes his techniques are the way to 'find the next generation of genius' (at least I thought he did; in discussion afterwards, some thought he was just an evil bully – take your pick...) when they meet, it is a marriage made in heaven (or is it hell?)
The acting, especially J.K. Simmons as Fletcher – who won the Oscar here – was superb. OK, the script was fantastic and his acerbic way of speaking made his casting just right, but he made the most of it. His portrayal of the softer side of Fletcher's character, especially, brought this out for me.
As to making you think; our discussion afterwards was all about teaching methods; is it right to push people this far in the search for greatness, or are we better to go for the 'good job'? Would Charlie Parker have survived in obscurity if he hadn’t faced that thrown cymbal..?
The film club now takes a summer break until September. If, like me, that seems a long time without seeing a good film, don't worry - The Alhambra will continue to offer a great selection of films and live transmissions from the National Theatre etc. I hope you all have a great summer; see you in September for our autumn season!
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