WHIPLASH

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4 stars
Whiplash is one of those films that you first hear about in hushed tones as the next big thing. As it happens most of this is deserved as it is an original, kinetic and well-acted low budget drama.
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The setting is also fairly unusual as it is set almost entirely within the claustrophobic halls of an elite Julliard-style New York music school.

Andrew (Miles Tiller from Divergent who is poised to become some sort of megastar. Let us hope he doesn’t get lost in a sci-fi franchise) is shy young drummer. He is not sure he can cut the mustard in this fiercely competitive college. It is his luck - both good and bad - to run into the tyrannical Fletcher (reliable character actor J.K.Simmons - Men, Women And Children) who hurls around musical instruments as well as gross insults at a hundred beats a minute. The whole arc of the film concerns Andrews’ attempts to stand up to the bullying Fletcher and let the warped maestro’s extreme drum lessons take him to the next level.

Although there’s a small sub-genre of films about struggling classical musicians making good, there aren’t that many films about drumming. Maybe this reflects the idea that drummers aren’t really ‘musicians’, they just hang out with musicians. This film manages to lay that ghost to rest and shows how extremely technical and hard great drumming actually is. When you think back, listening to Buddy Rich, or Art Blakey or Billy Cobham you always knew there is a huge base of skill underlying the interpretations. Here alas we rarely get to see full jazz numbers as the focus is all on the run up and preparation. Really it is a fierce sort of two-hander (the shy romance between Andrew and his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist - TV’s Glee) is a brief point of contrast) which the actors are clearly relishing.

Whiplash starts tense and gets tenser. At times the feeling of menace and hatred in the practice room is so palpable as to be truly unnerving. Possibly director Damien Chazelle has laid it on a bit too thickly. Some of the tactics and tantrums from Fletcher are so absurd that one could not imagine them happening in a loony bin let alone an educational institution. But it is all for dramatic effect and the film packs such a punch that you sort of forgive it its improbabilities. J.K. Simmons has been a strong tip for the Oscars with this performance.

Whether he wins will, of course, depend upon the field of competitors by next year but this is still a riveting and bravura piece of screen acting that leaps out of the screen and grabs you by the throat. Obviously, drum school – like ageing – is not for sissies.

// JULIAN WOOD

Previewed at Sony Theatre, Sydney on 13 October 2014
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STARRING
Miles Teller
J.K. Simmons
Paul Reiser
Melissa Benoist

DIRECTOR
Damien Chazelle

SCREENWRITER
Damien Chazelle

COUNTRY
USA

CLASSIFICATION
MA15+

RUNTIME
107 minutes

AUSTRALIAN
RELEASE DATE
October 23, 2014
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Whiplash (2014) on IMDb
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