We had heard a lot about this film. Most of the things we heard was that it was low budget, J.K Simmons steals the show, it’s made by Sony Picture Classics (which is usually a good thing) and that it’s edgy blah blah blah. I went into the cinema excited and, of course, I had reframed from reading any reviews prior to the screening. What I watched next was 107 minutes of pure raw, jazzy, demeaning American cinema which kept me enthralled from start to finish.
The story, and I’ll try and keep it as brief as possible without ruining the story (I was told my Birdman review gave too much away), is about a young jazz drummer, Andrew Neimann (Teller), brimming with optimism, enthusiasm and eagerness to become an elite, and one of the best jazz drummers of all time. His acceptance into Shaffer Conservatory Music School is a triumph in itself as it is one of the best musical universities in the country. If not the best. He progresses into the top jazz orchestra where he first encounters Terrence Fletcher (Simmons). Fletchers teaching methods are, how should I say this, unorthodox. However, one should not question these methods as he is nationally recognised as one of the most talented and passionate conductors on the jazz circuit (I can only assume that……I mean God knows what the jazz composer circuit is like).
As time goes on Andrew can tell that Fletcher is no push over and that he will be bullied into erasing every fibre of his past existence. He changes as a man, he dumps his bird, he becomes a stuck-up dick head at dinner, refuses to answer his Dads calls etc. But why did he allow this to happen? At what point must one say enough is enough and how did Fletcher manage to keep such a firm grasp over not only Andrew, but the rest of his students past and present?
It’s the relationship between the two which is key to the story, not the teaching methods nor the want and desire for Andrew to be a ‘great’. We must always remember that Andrew has a desire to go down as a Jazz legend and Fletcher has the ambition to produce just that. The two personal quests allowed them to meet and despite the atrocious treatment of his students there is always that mutual understanding that it is perhaps ‘for the best’.
As the film escalates into a bitter battle between Andrews reasoning of what is acceptable from a teaching perspective and his egotistical desire to become a legend, it is apparent that Fletcher capitalises on this vulnerability to push him further. Cruel? Perhaps. Beneficial to his career? The sad truth, yes. Fletcher creates artificial competition for Andrew by brining in other drummers and subsequently causing him to lose his First Seat position within the band. Whether this competition was authentic or not, I believe we as the audience will never really know.
To symbolise his progression the story follows Andrews battle with mastering what seems like the nearly impossible and electrifyingly fast jazz drum beat. From the beginning Andrew can not conquer it but trust me, he fucking well tries as he batters his hands to the point of bleeding to get it right.
The end is the real symbolic finale as Fletcher and Andrew team up, outside of Shaffer, at the JVC Jazz Festival. The atmosphere is tense and Fletcher’s intimidating and ghastly stare pounds down on Andrew. Initially, Andrew chokes and walks off the stage, succumbing to his inevitable existence as nothing more but a mere mediocre jazz drummer; but this is far from the end.
Andrew gets back on the stage, going head to head with his cruel teacher. He plays, and plays and plays and plays, refusing to stop for his band mates and most importantly refuses to stop when Fletcher asks. He plays from the heart, not from his regurgitated music sheets but from the free flowing beats that is imbedded in his D.N.A. Fletcher approves and goes with it. The audience is silent, in awe of the tension produced by such fast drumming and violent hand gestures from the conductor. The performance is outstanding and the drumming is finally mastered. The eyes of the master and the student meet. The understanding of one another has been reached and both are at peace. Why? Because the student has for the first time discovered what jazz is really about and that he knows he can go the distance. The teacher, well, he knows his life long ambition of creating a legend is finally underway.
The film is beautifully shot. It is reminiscent of on old smokey jazz hall, a stereotype of jazz music from the mid 1940s. The film lives up to this traditional theme by using mundane colours as well as dark music rooms and moody clothing, perfectly complimented with, sometimes, shabby music equipment. The music is outstanding and can be appreciated by most. Personally, I’m not a jazz fan but this music is so well composed and reflective of characters anybody can appreciate it. I would also describe it as non-hardcore jazz, if you know what I mean?
The non-diegetic sound of a continuous drum beat reminds the audience of the films premise and theme – JAZZ! I can also assume that it flirts with the representation that jazz is always on Andrews mind and therefore it should be on our mind as well. Echoing corridors, tuning of instruments and tapping of the conductors stick on the music stand also correlates with the never ending emphasis on the fact that this is a music film as well as creating a rambunctious sense of tension and dread.
This film really is a triumph and, like so many others have already said, Simmons is incredible. It is also a welcomed treat to part with the ongoing comic book films, novels-to-films premises and classic remakes. Whiplash is raw, epic, frightening and a mirror of human insecurities, fears and wanting to achieve and succeed. In a nutshell, that is why it has done so damn well. Everybody can relate to it.
Like always we have hoped you have enjoyed this brief review (kept it brief because we’re so late. As usual). It has been a pleasure to write.
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