London Film Festival 2014 Day 7: ‘Whiplash’

A pupil/teacher story dressed up as a battle-of-wits thriller, the pushy, over-hyped Whiplash fails to impress.

In Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, Miles Teller plays Andrew Neyman, a talented and fiercely ambitious jazz drummer who studies at an elite music conservatory. When Andrew is selected by the tutor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) to join the ensemble that Fletcher conducts, it seems like a dream opportunity for the young man to kick-start his career. But Fletcher, it turns out, is a fearsome, take-no-prisoners hard ass with whom Andrew soon finds himself locked in an ever-escalating battle of wills and wits.

Having scooped both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival Whiplash arrives at this year’s London Film Festival with a considerable weight of expectation. It looks to be pushing the right buttons for some audiences here too, but I hated the film, passionately. Essentially, the movie is just another guy-on-guy pupil/inspirational teacher story, but one of a particularly extreme variety.Your response to it will entirely depend on how you take to the character of Fletcher and his teaching methods.

Hollering ornate homophobic, sexist and xenophobic insults at his band as motivational tools (with many audience members screeching with delighted laughter at every one), Fletcher behaves like he’s in a military academy: his pupils are his platoon. He’s an amalgam of every OTT military-man you’ve ever seen on screen (and hoped never to see again): Louis Gossett Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman, Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge and R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket rolled into an obnoxious, foul-mouthed package of unpleasantness.

But damned if the film doesn’t hold the character up as an inspiration: a brave, out-on-a-limb maverick in a “pansy-assed” period that’s too eager to reward the mediocre with the blandly praising remark Fletcher disdains: “Good job!” Yes, Whiplash is a movie that suggests that we’d be getting much better jazz these days if tutors had the balls to hurl cymbals at struggling musicians.

The movie seems to be getting into something interesting when we learn about the destructive impact of Fletcher’s methods on a former pupil. But this revelation turns out to be merely a rather shameless plot device to propel Andrew and Fletcher into their next acts of gamesmanship. Fletcher’s methods may be a bit questionable, the film suggests, but they’re destructive only to wimps who can’t hack it. And the conductor is just the challenging figure that Andrew needs, cursed as the boy is with a loving but ineffectual Pa, and an extended family that’s indifferent to his musical ambitions (as a horrible meal scene reveals).

Since the movie does absolutely nothing to individualise the other members of the ensemble (they’re simply fodder for Fletcher’s insults), we’re mostly locked into the two guys’ battle of wits throughout. Teller and Simmons perform proficiently, but the film’s perspective is so skewed that I found myself recoiling from both of them. And the function of a shakily-integrated romantic subplot seems to be to punish the over-confident Andrew further for his moments of arrogance.

Chazelle’s work here suggests Michael Bay directing Shine. The performance scenes whip up quite the attention-getting ruckus, with Tom Cross’s editing zipping manically around Teller’s pounding, sweating, bleeding efforts. The pushiness of the style of these sequences underscores the aggressiveness of the film’s whole philosophy.

I found the masculinist, combative vision of creativity and collaboration that’s endorsed both offensive and reductive. But for those who share the view that conductors who behave like homophobic drill sergeants make the most effective of music tutors, then Whiplash is the film for them.