You haven't seen Whiplash? Why the hell haven't you seen Whiplash?
"I push people beyond what's expected of them. I believe that's an absolute necessity."
At the 2015 Oscars, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) walked away with the award for Best Picture. It was always going to be a title fight between it and Boyhood, but there was a small undercurrent of hope for a little independent movie called Whiplash.
That was a few years ago, but recently Whiplash has been added to Netflix, no doubt in advance of director Damien Chazelle's follow-up La La Land, which opens in UK cinemas this weekend. If you were lucky enough to see Whiplash at the cinema, then you already know what we're about to say. If you didn't catch it, listen to this:
Go and watch Whiplash immediately. It's one of the best films of the decade and your life is poorer for having not seen it.
Glad we got that out of the way. So what's it about, then?
Andrew (played by Miles Teller) is a first year jazz drummer studying at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory. He isn't satisfied with being a good drummer - he wants to be one of the all-time greats. At Shaffer, he encounters Terrence Fletcher, leader of the best band in the school.
Fletcher expects nothing but excellence from his students and pushes them beyond their limits, hurling abuse, insults and even chairs at Andrew. He will stop at nothing to realise someone's full potential, but the only person more determined to prove their greatness is Andrew.
OK, so that's a brief synopsis of the film, but it's not what Whiplash is really about. Whiplash is about pushing and being pushed. It's about realising that talent isn't enough, you have to bleed to succeed - literally. It's about whether you're prepared to pay the price of greatness, alienating yourself from everyone and swapping decency for perfectionism.
This makes Whiplash sound heavier than it actually is. There's a lot going on in this film, but first and foremost it's a piece of entertainment. An exhilarating, ferocious piece of entertainment. A lot of people think of jazz as soft saxophones that happily sit in the background; Whiplash smacks you round the face and knocks you back in your seat.
The way this movie is directed and edited is thrilling. The camera whips around, cutting back and forth between players, hitting every beat of the music that drives the film. Director Chazelle is a dead cert to win the Oscar for La La Land in February, but once you watch Whiplash, you'll be amazed that he wasn't even nominated that year.
Though it didn't take Best Picture, Whiplash actually walked away with three Oscars in 2015: two for technical achievements and one for Best Supporting Actor, going to J.K. Simmons for his performance as Terrence Fletcher. There are lots of great things about Whiplash, but J.K. Simmons' performance is one of the greatest.
He is terrifying, a ruthless perfectionist who humiliates his pupils until the weak crumble and only the strong remain. "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'," Fletcher tells Andrew as he explains his approach. Like all great villains you can see where he's coming from, but does he really believe that the end justifies his means, or is he just a sadist?
We won't spoil the ending, but holy shit, if you're not on the edge of your seat then you weren't paying attention. The final scene alone has 2.5 million views on YouTube and is as close to perfection as you're likely to see in a film like this. But don't immediately hop to YouTube and watch it - you have to see it in context. You have to know what Andrew went through to get there.
You're going to hear an awful lot about how amazing La La Land is over the next few weeks, and it's true, it is an amazing film, but it's a full-on musical with singing, dancing and romance, which might not be everyone's cup of tea. Whiplash is an absolute must-watch for anyone with eyes and ears, and knuckles to whiten.
All photos: Sony Pictures Classics