‘It’s all about this kid who plays drums in a jazz orchestra…’
Broken down to its basic plot elements, Whiplash sounds like something you’d actually pay money to avoid. But don’t be misled, because this is one of the year’s most gripping films, featuring a stellar central performance from JK Simmons that has made him hot favourite to lift this year’s Oscar for best supporting actor. As for the jazz element, well it probably helps if you like the music, but it’s by no means essential.
Andrew (Miles Teller) is an ambitious young drummer based at New York’s top music conservatory. Like all the other musicians there, he lives in the hope of being ‘spotted’ by their top tutor, Mr Fletcher (Simmons) and when he’s finally offered the chance to sit in with the big man’s own orchestra, Andrew senses an opportunity to make his mark on the world of music. His quest to be ‘the best’ is not so much an ambition as an all-encompassing obsession and he’s prepared to give it everything he’s got, even when it leaves him with bruised and bleeding hands and even when it means giving short shrift to his hapless girlfriend, Nicole (Melissa Benoist). But he soon discovers that Fletcher is not the most nurturing of tutors – on the contrary, he’s a self aggrandising, bigoted, foul-mouthed sadist who will observe no boundaries when it comes to pushing his proteges to achieve their best. Andrew’s likeable father, Jim (Paul Reiser) can only watch helplessly as his son is put through the wringer.
There are two superb performances at the heart of this story. Teller plays the buttoned-up (and actually not allthat likeable) Andrew with great skill, and it’s to his credit that you care deeply about what happens to him; but make no mistake, Simmons owns this film from the moment he steps into shot. An actor formally known for playing a range of affable nice guys (think of his easy going Dad in Juno) he’s made a startling transformation. He is mesmerisingly repellent, a snarling, brutal martinet convinced of his own superiority. You’ll hate him, you’ll want to punch his image on the screen, but at the same time, you won’t be able to take your eyes off him.
In case you’re thinking this all sounds a bit gloomy, take heart: there’s a climactic set piece where Andrew gets to strut his stuff behind a drum kit that can only be described as thrilling. Whiplash is a little cracker of a movie and if Simmons does triumph at the Oscars, it will be thoroughly deserved.