His knees weak, arms are heavy, vomit on his sweater, mom’s spaghetti… Sorry, lost myself in the moment there.
Short of a hoodie and a rap battle, there’s a lot of similarities to be drawn between Whiplash and 8 Mile. In fact, any sports movie (if you consider freestyle rapping a sport). There’s blood, sweat and tears aplenty. Not what you’d expect from jazz, but then you don’t even have to like or appreciate jazz to enjoy this film. What you do have to like – and what it comes down to – is the will to win, to succeed, to be the best whatever it takes. To really dig deep.
Beyond that it’s essentially a character study.
We start with music student Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) furiously practicing his drumming, then in walks feared and revered teacher Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who gives him a mini grilling then leaves, clearly unimpressed, returning briefly – as Andrew’s face lights up – only to say he forgot his coat.
In this opening scene we’re introduced to the main characters, we find out who they are, their motivations and their attitude – all within a few short lines of dialogue. Great screenwriting from Damien Chazelle (who also directs this). This also sets the scene for what follows. Neiman eventually does enough to work his way into Fletcher’s sought-after studio band, but then that’s when the hard work really starts.
If you’ve ever had a tough boss count yourself lucky. They all pale in comparison to Simmons’ ferocious Fletcher. Not since the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket have we witnessed characters be subject to such abuse. Yet Neiman comes back for more. He wants to be the best and, deep down, he knows that if he meets Fletcher’s exacting standards, he will be.
The other students in the class are scared to death of Fletcher, yet Neiman has an inner fire that sets him apart and he gives as good as he gets. As an actor, Teller is a bit of a rising star. He’s been in Rabbit Hole, Footloose and Divergent, and he’s soon to be seen in Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot. He also has a musical background (as a drummer for a church youth group band), which clearly stood him in good stead for the drumming scenes, which are frenetic, frenzied and exhilarating.
The camera circles Neiman during many of these scenes where Fletcher tests his mettle, screaming at him to drum faster. He’s soaked in sweat with blood dripping off his hands. These scenes could be at home in a boxing movie (Rocky, we’re looking at you) but in jazz it’s somehow all the more frightening.
If you had to explain this film to someone you’d probably end up doing a poor job. ‘Well it’s about jazz and drumming and a guy who wants to be a jazz drummer and, er, that’s about it.’ So plot wise it’s not too dense. But, as I said earlier, it’s a character driven film, so plot is somewhat incidental.
And as the drums roll and the sparks between student and teacher fly, all the way up to the film’s finale, you’ll be utterly hooked. You’ll come out exhausted and elated and emotionally drained – and quite possibly never look at a cymbal in the same way again. And those reactions – all of them – will be very much a good thing.