One of the most intense films I’ve seen in a long time, Whiplash follows the story of Andrew, a young jazz drummer as he tries to make it in a highly competitive music conservatory under Fletcher, a teacher who has a reputation for pushing his students too far.

Anyone who has ever tried to be an elite athlete or musician will relate instantly to the situation. Having myself been intimately involved in both the world of sport and music (although the extent to which I was “elite” in either is questionable) the setting was not only immediately familiar to me, but also hit very close to home emotionally.

The story begins with Andy practicing when Fletcher unexpectedly walks in. Quickly the audience becomes aware that they are in a music school, and the Fletcher is a teacher of some repute. After a brief period of Fletcher encouraging Andy to play, he walks out, apparently unimpressed. As the film progresses, at a brisk pace, Andy is recruited to Fletcher’s “studio band” and is thrust into the intense world of music competition, and under the direct tutelage of Fletcher.

The highlight of the film is J. K. Simmon’s performance as the intense, uncompromising, and slightly bipolar character of Fletcher. A monster who belittles students until they are at the point of tears, and frequently throws furniture across the room in the middle of rehearsal. This role could have easily been mishandled, and reduced into a caricature of the hot-tempered psycho coach, but Simmons handles it with an at times frightening intensity, masterfully skirting the line between being motivated by passionate perfectionism for the music, and utter sadism. If I were a betting man, I’d bet the farm on this performance winning the oscar for best supporting actor.

Miles Teller does a good job of the obsessive musician, although he is overshadowed (often literally) by Simmon’s performance. Still, he is competent as a foil for Simmons, and does well as the sympathetic audience surrogate. Editing and sound mixing – especially sound mixing, are excellent and unsurprisingly have also earned nominations for oscars.

Overall, an excellent, and well-rounded film. Not a “big” production (it had a budget of 3 million dollars, which is miniscule by Hollywood standards), it actually has a good ending, since it probably wasn’t chosen by marketing gurus and surveys after test screenings. Not being a “big” movie however may be a disadvantage in the race for best picture.

I would really like to see this film win, since for me good storytelling is the first and most important criteria, and Whiplash has it in spades. However, it does lack the emotional gravitas of some of the other nominees, so I’m going to pick it as an outside chance at an upset. But don’t take my word for it – go see it!

postscript: if any of the kids I coach watch this film, and feel that I am like the Fletcher character, please let me know… because that would be a problem (for me).

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