Wednesday, 15 October 2014

LFF 2014:

What does it take to be the best of the best? Innate genius? Passion? Endless hours of practice? Sacrifice? Being pushed by a mentor who believes in you? According to Whiplash, the answer is all of the above, but the most important thing is to be viciously abused by that mentor until you're driven to the very limits of your mental and physical capabilities. Few people are prepared to put up with the kind of shit that JK Simmons' terrifying music tutor Terence Fletcher flings at drum student Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), but then - apparently - that's why the best of the best are so few in number. I'm not sure I agree with Whiplash's argument, but it's certainly compelling watching it being put forward.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle's script ruthlessly focuses on the relationship between mentor and student to the expense of all other potential subplots, exactly as Andrew's focus must be on his drumming. Love interests, parental relationships, student rivalries and even a court case are all elements teased but ultimately pushed aside to make way for the central dynamic. And what a dynamic duo these two are. Fletcher most closely recalls Full Metal Jacket's Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: a borderline-insane, merciless bastard who can't afford to have the second-best of the best on his team. Simmons is amazing in the role, convincingly nailing the weapons-grade asshole but never losing sight of Fletcher's humanity, no matter how deep it's buried.

Miles Teller is the real star though: required to shift from nervous, sensitive cry-baby to emotionless drumming machine while actually playing like a pro, Teller holds the film's tempo like the musician his character yearns to become. He and Chazelle sell Andrew's passion completely, as sweat is flung off his face and blood soaks through the plasters he's ineffectually wrapped round his blistered and calloused fingers. It's an incredible performance, and Chazelle uses it to force us to ask who's really out of control here - the possibly-psychopathic, chair-hurling teacher, or the student so bursting with energy and hungry for greatness that he'd risk his life to impress him?
Whiplash is technically stunning and aurally thrilling (editing and sound design will be up there with Simmons and Teller come awards season), but the thunderous cacophony drowns out the sound of its own questionable assertion: namely the insistence that single-minded commitment at the expense of basic, decent humanity is the only way to success, and if it takes unbearable bullying from a dangerous maniac to achieve that then so be it. What's more, in Whiplash that success is measured by exactly replicating an artwork to mathematically precise standards: when a stereotypical jock questions whether music should be judged so objectively, he's shut down by Andrew. It's a sign of Andrew's devotion, sure, but the film sides with him completely and we're urged to laugh at the jock's naïvety. Now I'm all for laughing at jocks but I find the idea that art - and specifically music - is not to be questioned or adapted to be massively counter-productive.

You can argue the film's case at length if you like, and indeed it does suggest that success and perfection only make monsters of us all; it just seems to suggest that that's worth it. Fortunately it does it with skill and style and an absolute fucktonne of noise, and it's one of the most exhilarating experiences I've had at this year's London Film Festival.

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