When an aspiring drummer, Andrew (Teller), registers at a world-renowned New York music school, he fast realises that his drum kit isn’t the only thing that requires a thick skin.
Nothing sounds more like vanilla than a film about drumming. Drums are the Steady Eddie of instruments; the “not cool enough to be featured on our Unplugged album” rhythm-keeper of all bands. Spending two hours with drums and/or a drummer sounds like something I would checkout of post-haste. It is for that very reason that I am surprised that Whiplash has a strong chance of remaining top of my Film of the Year 2015 list.
My surprise was short-lived, however, because Whiplash was not really a film about drumming. The instrument was the vessel through which the story was told, and this was a story of pain, perseverance and the pursuit of perfection.
Much of the narrative was focused on the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher; the young student vs the bastard tutor (and bastard is a light word in this context), similar to the character dynamics in Full Metal Jacket. Teller’s characterization of the quiet, socially awkward protagonist should have been recognized in this year’s Oscar nominations, especially considering J.K. Simmons was given the nod as Best Supporting Actor. Both of these actors gave standout performances, their relationship dissected with nuanced excellence. Teller usually plays the wise-cracking jock, yet this role was a complete departure for him as he showed a tense vulnerability on screen.
The last film directed by Damien Chazelle, Grand Piano, also dealt with a talented protagonist playing a musical instrument, but instead of a vacuous plot carrying one-dimensional characters, Whiplash bears the hallmark of greatness, which is also a theme that is deeply explored in the film. Andrew has engulfed his life in drumming. Rather than developing relationships with family and friends, he sacrificed everything in an effort to be the greatest drummer of his generation; he opted for CDs over conversations; his sticks over a girlfriend. Every literal and metaphorical knock back drove him harder to prove the greatness he desired, which at times became cringe worthy to watch. At times the movie became a little far-fetched from a plot perspective, however the events helped to act as a visual metaphor for Andrew’s unrelenting drive to be the best.
Clearly a film about a drummer needed to have scenes of drumming, and they absolutely delivered. There was a wonderful adventurousness to the camera, with the drum kit and the drummer being shown from all angles, and the editing had a kinetic feel to it that reminded me of the music video to The Chemical Brothers – Star Guitar. At points I felt myself simultaneously gritting my teeth, nodding my head and tapping my feet.
Even if Whiplash is usurped as my Film of the Year, the movie about a drummer, which isn’t about drumming, will remain long in my mind. La La Land, Chazelle’s next movie, released later this year, is a piece of cinema on which I will be keeping a very close eye.