Whiplash review – drumming up the tension nicely

Whiplash

The struggles of a young drummer at an elite music school make for surprisingly gripping viewing, solos and all

Q: How do you know if there’s a drummer at your front door? A: He knocks three times then comes in late. Badoom tish! The perennial butt of countless muso-jokes, drummers have long been the source of morbidly outlandish legend, from tragicomic screen-gags about the Thamesmen’s timekeeper dying in a bizarre gardening accident, to tales of Spinal Tap’s Peter “James” Bond spontaneously combusting on the Isle of Lucy. Even in documentaries, drummers have been portrayed more as wildlife than musicians; think of Beware of Mr Baker, which opens with Cream tub-thumper Ginger Baker whacking his interviewer across the face with his cane, breaking his nose. No wonder Animal from the Muppets struck such a chord.

Three cheers, then, for one-time aspiring-drummer Damien Chazelle, writer/director of this whip-smart feature (adapted from his 2013 short) about a young wannabe jazz-legend earning his spurs at a fiercely competitive music school. With its scenes of our embattled hero plunging his bruised and bloodied hands into buckets of iced water while a tyrannical music instructor showers him with excoriating epithets and throws chairs at his head, this owes less to the reach-for-the-stars formulas of Fame than it does to the now-familiar beats of boot-camp and boxing movies.

In essence, it’s Rocky with snare drums, or perhaps Full Metal Hi-Hat, with JK Simmons’s conductor giving both Louis Gossett Jr and R Lee Ermey a run for their money in the scary drill-sergeant stakes.

We first meet Miles Teller’s 19-year-old Andrew as a new fish in the Juilliard-like “Shaffer Conservatory”, desperate to impress Simmons’s hair-trigger Terence Fletcher – a character partly inspired by Chazelle’s own much-feared high-school music teacher, with added touches of Buddy Rich. While leading his hand-picked players through a tight rendition of Hank Levy’s titular song, Fletcher becomes increasingly abusive toward the new recruit, the phrase “not quite my tempo” turning inexorably from a gentle admonishment to a terrifying threat. What follows is a sadomasochistic battle of wills between teacher and pupil, as Fletcher terrorises, torments and humiliates the young sticksman, pushing him ever harder to see whether he snaps to the rhythm, or breaks in two.

Behind all this abuse lurks the oft-repeated tale of Charlie Parker, who, it is said, practised like a demon after Count Basie’s drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at him for failing to keep time. The story is apocryphal (Jones actually threw the cymbal to the floor) but the message is familiar: only from great suffering – and great fear – comes great art. “There are no two words in the English language” says Fletcher, “more harmful than ‘good job’.” But is Fletcher’s bullying in fact born out of personal failure? When he talks movingly of the death of a former brilliant pupil, we are reminded of the scene from Broadcast News in which William Hurt’s careerist news reporter is conveniently caught crying on camera. Is this fleeting display of empathy just for show?

Considering the slimness of the plot and the familiar verse-chorus-middle-eight structure of the narrative (boy meets girl, drum meets boy, girl loses boy to drum etc) it’s dazzling how sprightly and inventive this conspires to be. Having penned the histrionic musical thriller Grand Piano (strike a wrong note and die!) Chazelle plays a similar theme here, with beats becoming a matter of life and death. As a director, his strokes are clean and crispy, with cinematographer Sharone Meir’s energetic camera performing visual arpeggios as it sweeps around the rehearsal rooms.

Meanwhile editor Tom Cross cuts with finger-snapping dexterity, his jazzy pacings echoing the rhythmic slicings of Frank Mazzola or Jerry Greenberg, making the film pop with a rimshot twang.

As for the performances, Simmons is a sinewy symphony of physicality, his muscular arms and poised fingers waving the drama onward apace, his endlessly expressive eyes alert and ablaze, his razor-sharp mouth playing the paper-cut dialogue like a demonic fiddle. Teller is terrific too as the young gun bleeding for his art, wholly convincing as the raw talent in whom even the most poisonous taskmaster can hear the distant drums of greatness.

Perhaps Chazelle’s most remarkable achievement is the fact that he manages to turn an impromptu drum solo – that most unforgivably indulgent of musical breaks – into a tense and engrossing dramatic set piece that sets the heart racing. Even when the drama descends into parodic paradiddles and melodramatic car-crashes (both literal and metaphoric) there’s a splashy, impressionist energy which keeps us locked into its insistent rhythm. For all its overripe contrivance, you’ll leave the cinema with a spring in your step and a thump in your chest, eager to bang the drum for what deserves to be one of the year’s real word-of-mouth hits.

This article was amended on January 17 to correct a subbing error which gave the wrong name for the drummer of Cream.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Mark Kermode, Observer film critic, for The Observer on Sunday 18th January 2015 09.30 Europe/London

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