Warning – this review contains some potential spoilers

There’s no denying that Whiplash is an extraordinary film. What’s most extraordinary about it is how very, very close to being ordinary it comes. Here’s the set-up. Music student and aspiring jazz drummer Miles Teller, newly enrolled at a prestigious (fictional) music academy in New York hopes to be and is talent-spotted by martinet band-leader and conductor JK Simmons. Through his sometimes brutal tutelage, Teller develops his talent, but suffers mightily in the process.

I have to say, this set-up, neatly laid out in the trailer, did not inspire me with confidence. This is pretty familiar stuff. The older man whose ruthless and sadistic game-playing (while simultaneously firing off zippy one-liners) ultimately leads the callow youngster he takes under his wing to a greater understanding and eventual a rapprochement between the two. Off the top of my head, I can think of Scent of a Woman, every episode of House MD, Full Metal Jacket (only with a different ending), House of Games, and many sports movies including Million Dollar Baby, Rocky and (sort-of) A League of Their Own. You can probably think of more. Plus Shine sets the bar pretty high for musicians-who-push-themselves-to-breaking-point movies for me.

But if we must have another entry in the collection of demented mentor figures, let us at least have one played by JK Simmons who seizes the material with delirious glee – with a lesser actor in this key role, the whole thing might fall apart. He shifts effortlessly from laconic encouragement to full-on physical abuse, constantly keeping his young protégée off-balance, while continuing to manipulate, encourage and punish him to greatness. Teller, likewise, holds up his end of the bargain, giving poor Andrew just enough steel that we continue to root for him, and enough vulnerability that we fear he might fail. Teller’s Brat Pack good looks allow him to be laser-focused on his goal without losing too much audience sympathy. It’s a good job in a much less showy acting role, although his contortions behind the drum kit are amazing to behold.

But to understand what makes this film so extraordinary, it is necessary to consider (pace Julian Barnes) all the things which writer-director Damien Chazelle did not do. Anyone who has heard the set-up or seen the trailer will understand that the main conflict will be between charismatic but possibly loopy teacher and talented but possibly too feeble student and that the interest lies in seeing how each deals with the other, and who will end up on top.

Plenty of films would have built up at least one, if not both characters, before they first meet. They would show us Teller’s first day at school, establish his desire to be one of the great jazz drummers, clue us in on this school works, what power JK Simmons has (maybe his reputation precedes him), what competitions his band will enter and what the rewards are for doing well in them, and ease us into the story. Whiplash has no truck with any of that. Seconds after the company logos are off the screen, we get the two men’s first meeting, and already Simmons is playing mind-games with Teller. This is what you came for? Well, here it is, front and centre.

This ruthless efficiency certainly smacks of confidence in the material and the cast, and it largely pays off. There’s a pleasing lack of pedantry which, especially after the clunking Theory of Everything, is very refreshing. He picks the players. They play in competitions. It’s important. You got that? Okay, we can move on. But what’s also fascinating is that the nature of their interaction all centres on technical ability. Just like in a sports movie, Teller pushes his body beyond what it can bear, plunging bloody hands into ice water and then picking up the drumsticks again. But whereas you will hear the dread passive-aggressive phrase “Not quite my tempo” from Simmons’ terrifying conductor more than once, you hear hardly anything about the music and nothing about soul or inspiration.

You don’t even hear anything about improvisation, and this is a movie about jazz! The expected conflict between technical proficiency and playing from your heart simply fails to materialise. Good is good if Simmons says it is. It’s like being able to jump high or run fast or bowl a 300 game. When you can do it, everybody knows it. Okay then. And yet, the music itself belies that. Justin Hurwitz does an amazing job with the (entirely diagetic) score and Chazelle shoots the shit out of the practising, rehearsing and playing sequences which are edited with razor-accuracy by Tom Cross.

But while this lean approach pays dividends (the supporting cast is pared to the bone too – none of the other band-members really register, Paul Reiser is in maybe four scenes as Teller’s pleasingly rumpled Dad, and Teller gets a girlfriend only to dump her immediately to focus on drumming) it also has drawbacks. Finding the shapes so familiar, even though I was enjoying the bright colours used to fill them in, I pretty quickly constructed a road-map of the movie in my head, right the way up to the eccentric mentor’s eventual humbling followed by his little speech of self-justification.

However, removing all unnecessary material means the films burns through story pretty quickly and so we reached that point only around 70 minutes in. It’s in its final act – not so much a plot twist as an elegant narrative curlicue – that the movie finally did what I think it had been trying to do all along: it surprised me.

This is fine film-making, a little less adventurous in its construction than maybe its writer-director would like to admit, but rooted enough to feel real, brash enough to feel arresting and shot with real verve and brio. I somehow doubt it will last the ages, but it’s tight, exciting and grown-up cinema.

Black marks to my local Odeon (Camden) who allowed me to book online and pick my seats in their spacious, but misshapen Screen 1, and then without notice moved the film to their broom closet of a Screen 4 and stuck me in the back row, far left. However, kudos for politely and promptly refunding my money when I complained.

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