The Square Chapel Centre for Arts has recently undertaken an initiative to show films at its historic building in Halifax, showing a mix of modern classics and recent critical hits including family favourite Matilda, cult classic Napoleon Dynamite, atmospheric chiller It Follows and the groundbreaking The Tribe. It continues its run of quality choices with the dazzling Whiplash, which burst onto cinema screens in January, cementing itself early on as a contender for one of the best films of the year, wowing both critics and audiences and smashing the idea that Jazz is all about laid back grooves.
Playing on the age old theory that art comes from suffering, Whiplash sees 19 year old Andrew (Miles Teller), a talented drummer at the Schaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City, who is practicing one night alone when formidable conductor Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), who is stalking the halls like an intimidating apparition, hears him play. Shortly after, Andrew is picked for the school’s studio jazz band however it proves to be a baptism of fire as the tyrannical Fletcher pushes Andrew to his limits, physically and mentally, in order to achieve brilliance.
Any connotations of low lit cigarette fuelled jazz clubs are blown out of the water as here it is portrayed as a scalpel precision discipline, where a pupil’s slightest mistake is met with a flying chair and blood, sweat and tears are part of rigorous rehearsals. Andrew becomes embroiled in a musical mind game with Fletcher, desperate and determined to win his revered approval and a place in the band which will lead to competitions attended by talent scouts. There are echoes of Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 ballet masterpiece The Red Shoes, where the young ballerina sacrifices everything for her talent, as does Andrew, subjecting himself to repeated misery and humiliation for his passion, dismissing family members and ending a blossoming romance which he deems as a distraction.
With a plot that could veer into gloomy melodrama, the film instead crackles with electricity, helped largely by the casting. Miles Teller is a beguiling screen presence as Andrew, a mix of intensity and vulnerability, able to push himself to the limits with steely passion yet also reduced to a quivering wreck by the man whose validation he severely craves. However the film is dominated by Simmon’s Fletcher, clad in black, he is like a respected yet feared dictator, a simple hand gesture can crush a pupil, like the teacher you dreaded at school turned up to eleven. Previously the dependable supporting player in comedic roles, JK Simmons relishes his chance to play such a vicious character, his nice guy persona twisted into something terrifying, an unrelenting alpha male who believes his teaching style will wield the best from his students. Simmons deservedly won an Oscar for his performance and also spawned a new catchphrase in cutting dismissal.
Director Damien Chazelle keeps the pace of the film like a perfectly timed piece of music, prone to outbursts of dramatic flair but all the while simmering with tension, building up to a crescendo, the final scene plays out like a master class in edge of your seat exhilarating filmmaking. And whilst the emotional resolution of Whiplash may be ambiguous, dependent on your stance on the relationship between teacher and pupil, you will find it hard to witness a better finale in cinema this year.