Writer and director Damien Chazelle must really love jazz. His second feature Whiplash had jazz by the trumpet-load and his latest is a musical romance about a jazz musician and an aspiring actress. A musical in this day and age? What will they think of next?
The film opens on a big sweeping musical number. The camera floats around rows of cars in a traffic jam as their occupants burst out and join one another in song. There are bright colours, tightly choreographed dance moves, and even a band hidden in the back of a lorry. This is one big love song to old school musicals and a statement of intent for what is to follow. The opening number misleads in some ways as it raises expectations for a traditional musical plot that La La Land isn’t happy to settle for.
From that opening we meet our two protagonists: Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is that very same jazz musician; a man so in love with the genre he dreams of opening his own jazz joint one day. His love interest is Mia (Emma Stone), a desperately auditioning actress and part time barista who sleeps at night under a giant portrait of Katharine Hepburn. They both have big dreams that nobody else believes in and from the moment they meet the only people who can deny their chemistry is themselves. What follows is an incredibly charming romance replete with songs and dance numbers. Neither Stone nor Gosling are singers but work with what they have and sing gently rather than belting out showstoppers. Their dance moves are impeccable and my mind kept wandering back to memories of Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon Levitt dancing in a bank. The role of the well-rounded movie star is alive and well with this pairing.
Like all romance it isn’t all song and dance. As their relationship progresses Mia and Sebastian find themselves compromising on their dreams in order to be with each other. As the fairy tale starts to fade so do the songs and La La Land evolves from being a mere musical into something deeper. It it here that the film takes a risk as the razzmatazz is replaced with mundanity and doubt. For a period we are not in the colourful wonderland that opening song promised us but somewhere a lot less fun to be. I started to doubt the film at this point and thought it had gone off course; a valid try but not a triumph.
But then… Wow! That final section! The film pulls the rug from under you and throws all your emotions at you at once. In his last masterstroke Chazelle brings the whole film together with a flourish. What seemed to be a mistake became a necessity and La La Land, while not the film I thought it was, cemented itself as a modern musical classic. I’m still humming along now as I type.
For someone brought up on The Sound of Music and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers this was just what I needed.
Unbeknownst to him Miles Teller and I have had a tempestuous relationship until recently. He first crossed my path when he co-starred in the remake of my beloved Footloose and then the atrocity that was Project X; neither appearance endearing him to me. In the past year he has starred in two YA adaptations with Shailene Woodley, Spectacular Now and Divergent, playing unsympathetic characters with varying degrees of complexity. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Teller; was he a good actor making not so great films or a mediocre actor in mediocre films? I couldn’t be sure until I saw Whiplash this week. Everything is different now. Miles Teller has arrived and earned his place at last.
In Whiplash Teller plays the role of Andrew, a music student and aspiring drummer studying at the country’s finest music conservatory. His dream is to impress the intimidating Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) who is known for pushing his students either to the brink of sanity or into greatness. Andrew works his way into the jazz band conducted by Fletcher and while his hero is initially encouraging Andrew soon experiences to extreme high standards demanded by the musical perfectionist. In a bid to match what Fletcher demands Andrew sacrifices all semblance of a normal life to practise to the brink of exhaustion and play the drums until he has secured a place in the band and then hopefully a career for himself in music. The question is not whether Andrew wants a career drumming badly enough but whether or not he will survive Fletcher’s unique brand of training.
Whiplash is nothing short of astonishing. The energy the film has from start to finish is literally breathtaking and the sense of release felt by the audience in my screening when the film came to a close was such that spontaneous cheering broke out. Watching Teller at work playing Andrew is exhausting as he drums and drums, and drums some more. The sheer effort of the role is self-evident and the film shows blood, sweat and tears all pouring out of Teller and onto the drum kit as his sticks flying across the screen. Effort is a key component of Whiplash; it is about not taking the easy route but about earning your dreams and demanding them when others stand in your way. Andrew sometimes comes across as entitled but he damn well earns the right to his entitlement. It’s not often that cinema shows that success requires work and sacrifice or shows it so effectively.
Opposite Teller Simmons plays the role of the surly mentor with a real vicious edge. This is not your typical irascible trainer who pushes the protagonist at first but turns out to have a heart of gold. Fletcher is a horrible man intent on bringing out the best performance at the risk of sacrificing the individual. While given a slew of amusing one-liners Simmons’ performance never lets humour outweigh the underlying nastiness of the character. Fletcher is not a nice man but he and his students believe that this is key to the success of his band. Another theme in Whiplash is ego and whether or not building it up is simply going to make it harder when you are inevitably knocked down. Fletcher is constantly undermining his students egos and stroking his own making him an absolutely fascinating character to watch.
I won’t go any further in describing what takes place in the film as it is something to experience for yourself. The journey that Fletcher forces Andrew down is a painful one and Whiplash does not follow the predictable trajectory. Writer/director Damien Chazelle has made a film of high energy, exhausting workmanship, and a real pace. Whiplash is a force of nature and I came out shaken and buzzing with energy. It’s hard to explain why without you seeing it for yourself on a big screen and a decent sound system.
The one bum note to the film is its disinterest in the sole female character. Briefly introduced as a love interest she is quickly disposed off which felty slightly wasteful and perhaps surplus to requirements. That aside Whiplash was as close to perfect as this year’s festival has gotten. Get me to a jazz bar!
Whiplash has a UK release date of 16th January 2015 and screens at the London Film Festival on the 16th & 18th of October 2014.