10 years in the making


It may not be the Ofsted approved way of inspiring students to greatness (although there is an argument that it’s the way Ofsted treats teachers), but it seemed to achieve the intended result. Or did it? There’s an ambiguity at the dark heart of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, a film that was shot in 19 days, and beat Boyhood to the top prizes at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
Using public humiliation and foul-mouthed abuse matched only by Malcolm Tucker, J K Simmons gives a towering and terrifying performance as Fletcher, a teacher in an elite music school who believes bullying is the way to nurture the genius of the next Charlie Parker. But is it Fletcher, or the young drumming student Andrew, played by Miles Teller, who gets the upper hand?
It’s not just his students that Fletcher manipulates with the unpredictability of his reactions; it’s also the cinema audience. You can easily be misled and slip into the danger zone. Charismatic and passionate, a flicker of a smile of approval, and you’re so happy you’ve pleased him you’ll offer up some personal confidences. He’ll use them to publicly humiliate you and nothing is off limits. He’ll flex a muscular arm, clench both his fist and face, slowly nod his head and unleash a torrent of emotional and physical abuse. It’s a master class in how to be a bully and J. K. Simmons relishes it in a performance that’s won him an Oscar nomination.
Fletcher meets his match in the obsessive Andrew, and the two go head to head in brutal and bloody clashes. There’s no room for women in this alpha male territory as Andrew acknowledges when he unceremoniously dumps his girlfriend. The confrontations are destructive and at the same time moving and exhilarating. It’s tense and exhausting but also really good fun, especially if you’re a teacher imagining the arrival of the inspectors. You may need to remind yourself that no amount of artistic passion excuses cruelty and intimidation, and that the quest for individual perfection creates more casualties than geniuses. Charlie Parker himself was one of them.