In the lead-up to Hollywood’s night of nights, we look at the dark horse in the Best Picture race and one of the most intense flicks of last year.
In one word – unnerving. You don’t watch this movie to relax; Whiplash dominated Sundance last year and will have you crouched in your seat, on the edge, but always tapping your feet.
Miles Teller plays Andrew Neyman, a drummer accepted to the best music school in the country under the tutelage of Terence Fletcher – a perfectionist, drill-sergeant, hyper-ambitious task-master (J.K. Simmons). The film revolves around their relationship and Andrew’s obsession to join the pantheon of musicians he idolises.
The school and setting feel a lot like Fame, but Whiplash hovers closer to Flashdance, with the focus being on one character trying to make it big while balancing relationships and their sanity. Except unlike Flashdance, Whiplash doesn’t care if you tried your hardest; think Master Yoda – ‘Do, or do not, there is no try.’
Not always a feel-good mix of jam sessions, Whiplash is a consummate drama and thriller focused on pushing its protagonist to his extremes. It’s more akin to Wall Street or Top Gun than any of their ‘80s musical counterparts – centered around an individual willing to go all the way in a niche, hyper-masculine, often degrading environment where making it is what matters. You don’t need to be a jazz fan to appreciate this any more than a fighter pilot to be excited for the impending Top Gun 2, it’s about being driven and what you’re willing to sacrifice to get there.
While Teller’s drumming is commendable, Simmons is the stand-out and a strong contender to take home Best Actor in a Supporting Role. We know him as a jerk from the Spiderman trilogy and Jason Reitman’s Thank You For Smoking (Reitman plays producer here). In Whiplash, Simmons gets to play an even bigger and much more complex jerk who drives the dramatic tension for much of the film. We’ve all had a teacher like him; brass (that’s the only music pun we’ll make!), confrontational, and deeply invested.
The relationship between Neyman and Teller plays much like Jesse Pinkman and Walter White from Breaking Bad; characters with thoroughly unlikeable qualities who are nevertheless endearing. There’s constant manipulation, with the adult usually having the upper hand. Forced to work together, their interaction is characterised by intermittent conflict, flare-ups, co-dependency and grudging respect.
Whiplash is up there with the most accomplished films of the year and a worthy Best Picture contender, albeit a dark horse.