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LFF 2014: Whiplash Review


Director: Damien Chazelle.

Starring: Miles Teller, J K Simmons, Melissa Benoist.

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Synopsis: A gifted young drummer finds himself challenged by a brilliant mentor intent on pushing his student to greatness.

Stories of mentors and protégés are nothing new; from DRUNKEN MASTER to Disney’s HERCULES, THE COLOUR OF MONEY to THE KARATE KID, they have all presented that age old tale of the older man passing his wisdom, skills and indeed, his own form of masculinity onto their student. The problem is that never before has this little sub-genre seen such an obnoxious display of dick swinging. It’s surprising that at no point does anyone drop-trou and start comparing the length of their mansticks to drumsticks.

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a drumming prodigy who isn’t content with being excellent, he wants to be one of the greats. So he tries to impress his new conductor Thomas Fletcher (Simmons) who, through a cavalcade of mind games and physical abuse, makes Andrew the best drummer he can be. But will it cost him… His soul? To imply a Faustian pact may be giving director/writer Damien Chazelle a tad too much credit because what we have instead is an impressionable boy trying to live up to a foul archetype of masculinity that we aren’t necessarily supposed to like, but dammit we have to respect, right? Sure Fletcher calls his musicians faggots, retards, little girls, he fat-shames, he slaps faces, but it’s all in the name of producing greatness which seems to be not only the ethos of the character, which would be fine, but the film maker, which isn’t. It’s possible to enjoy a character who spouts homophobic, sexist tirades as long as we aren’t meant to root for them.

Chazelle’s kinetic direction and Tom Cross’s fast paced editing capture that palpable energy of big band jazz, particularly percussion. Sound is predictably vital to the feel of the piece so the score from Justin Herwitz and the sound mixing of Thomas Curley and his team deserve major recognition. Their use of music going in out of the diegetic is particularly striking. Perhaps more so is Chazelle’s use of framing, as there are shots which, due to the mise en scene and tightness of frame on Teller’s head and shoulders, make Andrew’s drumming look far more like masturbation than one might expect. It’s the slow motion, the rhythmic movement and the sweat dripping from what even the most prudish spectator would call an O-Face. Andrew’s dedication to drumming is not just arguably sexual but masochistic, as his hands are frequently blistered and bloodied in pursuit of perfection (which really happened to Miller), echoing Darren Aronofsky’s treatment of Mickey Rourke and Natalie Portman’s bodies in THE WRESTLER and BLACK SWAN respectively.

Simmons is, of course, excellent as the musical drill Sargent and will likely have Best Supporting Actor sewn up come awards season. His charisma and machine gun delivery give him a magnetic quality and he’s clearly a gifted comic performer. Teller looks more like John Cusack than John Cusack and seems to have gone full-on Daniel-Day-Lewis-method because he looks incredible on the drums. His character arc from bumbling sweetie to cold-hearted over-achiever is completely convincing and he almost makes it out of Simmon’s imposing shadow, both in character and reality. Melissa Benoist gets precious little to do as Andrew’s girlfriend Nicole and seems to exist specifically to provide growth for Teller’s character. Although she has some agency, she is essentially an extension of Andrew and we aren’t supposed to worry to much about her fate but see how it affects our hero (see the term ‘fridging’).

This is at the heart of what is wrong with WHIPLASH; it is another tale of straight white men with straight white men problems (in this case jazz, which apparently is only palpable when mediated through white folk). Had Andrew been played by a woman (Ellen Page for example), it would have been a far more interesting film. The exact same script, the exact same plot and character development, but with the gender of the lead character switched, then we would have something quite special. Her dynamic with Fletcher would have been truly unique and it would provide a whole new perspective on the mentor-protege trope. Alas, it was not to be and what could have been great, is merely good. And all that jazz.


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John is a gentleman, a scholar, he’s an acrobat. He is one half of the comedy duo Good Ol’ JR, and considers himself a comedy writer/performer. This view has been questioned by others. He graduated with First Class Honours in Media Arts/Film & TV, a fact he will remain smug about long after everyone has stopped caring. He enjoys movies, theatre, live comedy and writing with the JR member and hetero life partner Ryan. Some of their sketches can be seen on YouTube and YOU can take their total hits to way over 17!

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