Whiplash. Or should that be lash of the whip. Specifically J.K. Simmons’. His Terence Fletcher, a smouldering semi-autistic terror of a conductor at the auspicious Shaffer Conservatory in New York, steals every last scene. It is easy to see why he scooped up the Academy Award for best supporting actor at Sunday’s Oscars ceremony. The only point of contention is whether he should have been in that category at all. Whiplash is Simmons’ film and the actor is first credit.
Simmons transforms a film about drumming into a masochistic pseudo-comedy that hurts hard and laughs loud. Like watching an episode of Friends when you haven’t got any, or still going to the cinema with your father, like Neiman. Whiplash charts the sophomore year of Miles Teller’s Andrew Neiman, an hubristically aspiring young jazz musician who seeks divinity in his drum kit. While Teller is at times captivating in his role and does a “good job” battering a snare until he looks on the cusp of unleashing a personal crescendo, nothing prepares a cinema regular for the rare brilliance of Simmons’ performance.
Locked deep within the dark rehearsal rooms of Shaffer lurks the phantom studio band, conducted by a ghostlike mafia-man, Fletcher. Simmons appears at doors and haunts the spaces of the Conservatory, channeling Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort not only because he’s bald, people, but in creeping scariness. One day he happens upon Neiman practicing. In a true Christian Grey at the hardware store moment, they have an awkward exchange that reveals the unhinged nature of Fletcher’s character. Let’s just say it is not your usual audition and lacks a certain X-factor.
The set pieces are stunning. Take the live edits which release the visceral essence of the power of drumming, while bearing absolutely no concern with realism. However, it is with words that Whiplash really gains its critical kudos. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, it is a true insider’s story. Casting Simmons for the role, a singer and wannabe composer before a more serious career in acting took hold (?!?), is a real coup. The pair combine to present the introverted, inner-workings of the myopic music world to a mainstream cinema audience. Drawing on his own experiences at Princeton, Chazelle unveils Terence Fletcher as both an alien character and yet one who is familiar to all. This could be that unstable volcano of a sport’s coach or the teacher who is prone to tearing into a text book with blood red dripping teeth.
Before we get all Twilight and vampiric, it is not the case here. Fletcher merely draws blood and sucks on dreams. Then swears, a lot. If we take Voldemort and implant the voice box of Peter Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker from hit BBC sitcom, The Thick Of It (written by Armando Ianucci, the force behind HBO’s resplendent satire, VEEP), then we are near to the truth. For the most part, it is impossible to distinguish between the battering, barrage of abuse delivered by Fletcher and the drum kit soundtrack itself. Simmons displays an acute vocal range sneering like a set of sizzling symbols. With the perfect balance of his sibilance, assonance becomes associated with the asshole. The actor takes bad-mouthed dialogue and turns it into a shower of shit with which he deluges the dreams of his baby-faced prodigies, regressing them into dummy-sucking toddlers. Albeit, ones with trombones.
Highlights include the frequent tirade against the homosexuals within the band. “Don’t come too soon, this is not your boyfriend’s penis” and “taking his pride to the West Side” stand out as two personal favourites. However, it is poor old (correction: at nineteen, the youngest band member), Neiman who has to look into those x-ray blue eyes and carcinogenic capillaries that rage and bulge across the forehead. Perhaps the most memorable scene of an outstanding film replete with onscreen delights is the I AM UPSET stand-off between Fletcher and Neiman. Fletcher truly displays the characteristics of a sociopathic psychopath, schizophrenic and bi-polar to match. He is a psychological case study to behold. He ventures from an almost cutesy, pastoral character asking questions about Neiman’s family into a cascading cacophony of a cannon firing carefully targeted bullets of personal abuse. Outside of the rehearsal space, he is an all right kinda guy, interested and comfortable in company. Inside the room, with the band, he is a monster.
Director Chazelle takes this transformative reality of the solipsism of the stage and puts it on the screen with great aplomb. In plot terms, an apt comparison comes from 2010’s fellow Academy Award winner, Black Swan which put the ballistic into ballerina in a bonkers melange of blood, self-harm and sadism. Aesthetically and sonically, the film shares stylistic features with Birdman. Disparate jazz segues scenes and cuts them suddenly. Meanwhile, cinematographer Sharone Meir’s shooting offers a similarly topsy-turvy turbulence to proceedings. Only, unlike those two films, Neiman does not need to metamorphose into a swan or actually start flying to get the point across. The film ends nice and innocuously without any real climactic event, just some serious sweat, blood and tears drumming. Drumming, yes, but Whiplash is more about J.K. Simmons as Chief Whip. Eat your heart out Michael Gove, this is how you keep a backbench bassist in his seat.