"It is tense, difficult, but utterly enjoyable, and a very strong candidate for film of the year"

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” runs the old joke. The punch line, evoking innumerable crushed dreams and scores of bitterly disappointed musicians, is simply “practice”. An anticlimax in every sense of the word, but Whiplash—from writer-director Damien Chazelle—is anything but. This drama about a young jazz drummer takes that proverbial witticism and rips it apart, arguing that in the pursuit of greatness, practice isn’t even nearly enough; true perfection requires pushing oneself to the absolute limit of one’s abilities. And director Chazelle, at just 29 years of age, makes an argument for his own greatness in the process.

Andrew Neyman (played by Miles Teller in one of his first leading roles) is a 19-year-old jazz drummer enrolled at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City. His dreams of becoming a prodigy find fruition when he is invited to join the college’s primary band led by the unrelentingly demanding teacher Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons). Fletcher adopts an erratic approach to teaching, pushing his students to breaking point, taunting them with racial slurs and psychological abuse. He appears to take an interest in Neyman but whether this is because he sees promise in our young protagonist or something else altogether it not initially clear.

Neyman puts everything else in his life on hold. Unsatisfied with the idea of simply being considered ‘great’, he argues that he wants to be “one of the greats,” a subtly different goal that leads to his rejection of friends, family, and love in the pursuit of perfection. Whiplash is an intensely exhilarating film; it bounds along at the speed of a drumbeat and barely pauses for breath. By the film’s triumphant climax, the tension has built to excruciating levels and the release is delightfully satisfying.

J. K. Simmons’ performance as the harsh, exhausting teacher is a highlight. He drives the film just as he does his band, ferociously stretching anxiety levels to the point of collapse. To him, resting on one’s laurels is the worst possible sin. Miles Teller handles his role well, playing student to Simmons’ teacher, the pair square up against each other in a very interesting way.

Jazz purists will no doubt find fault with Whiplash’s portrayal of its world. The intense practice sessions and blind struggle for ‘greatness’ often comes across as a shallow caricature. An anecdote involving pioneering saxophonist Charlie Parker, alluded to numerous times throughout, is only half true. The facts have been altered, and the story misinterpreted to fit and support the film’s message. However, for the majority these issues will be so small as to be unnoticeable.

Damien Chazelle has marked himself out as a true prodigy. Writer of last year’s audacious but poorly executed Grand Piano, he is a filmmaker intensely interested in what drives musicians, and is already working on his next film about a jazz pianist. Whiplash is simply brilliant; it marches at you, snares pounding and cymbals crashing. It is tense, difficult, but utterly enjoyable, and a very strong candidate for film of the year.