Whiplash is a perfect title for this film, because it made me think it was a great example of onomatopoeia, except instead of Whiplash sounding like what it’s describing, the experience of watching Whiplash makes you feel like you’ve underwent whiplash. Then again, you have to appreciate the metaphorical idea the film presents: watching Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) beat students into beating drums at his tempo provides viewers with an emotional whiplash they get to encounter again and again.
The premise is simple: Andrew (Miles Teller) wants to be the greatest jazz drummer who lived, so much so that he’ll preemptively break up with a girl after having struggled to ask her out in the first place; make a point at a family dinner to educate his extended relatives that becoming part of the core group of a prestigious band ruled by a prestigious conductor at a prestigious conservatory is far greater than making third division on a football team; walk away from a car accident where he’s so badly injured, it’s a wonder he’s able to walk, much less drum; and nearly isolate anyone else who fails to understand his passionate loyalty to drumming.
I think director Damie Chazelle would like viewers to consider that Andrew, himself, is the greatest obstacle he must overcome to achieve his dreams. Yet J.K. Simmons’s best performance-to-date as the dictator-like conductor Terrence Fletcher might prove otherwise. Fletcher knows what Andrew wants. Fletcher’s tactics and attitude bleed brutality. Fletcher appears as a monster to people who are not part of the music world, and yet he’s a true character for many who have climbed the ladder of musical performance at arts schools.
As viewers, we’re waiting for that moment where we see Fletcher shed a moment of vulnerability, and there are even times when we’re convinced that he might have a heart. But his methods are born of madness, possibly drawing from his own insecurities. Fletcher is so set on physically and emotionally driving his students to the edge in order to accomplish . . . what, exactly? Fletcher seeks the best out of his students, right? He’s a teacher, a mode of influence who realizes that saying the words “good job” may be the most harmful to a student’s progress, creating a strain that holds them back from achieving their greatest work. And yet as viewers, we don’t really question whether the lines between his coaching and abusing are blurred, because cussing out a student and hurling furniture at his head would fire many a director, manager, coach, etc. Yet Fletcher believes wholly in his methods, justified or not, if it means getting his way.
Aside from the ending, there are two moments I want to discuss, that I’m willing to allot more time on these points than the rest of the film. Both scenes focus on dialogue instead of the music. The first one I alluded to earlier, when Andrew tries to explain his musical aspirations to his extended family. At a family dinner, family members brush over Andrew’s accomplishments, settling on praising those who have accomplished goals they understand, specifically his cousins’s achievements in sports. Moving up the ranks, going up divisions, getting put on first string, being a starter, catching a ball, making a touchdown, or shooting a basket: all of these ideas are so familiar to us, that they couldn’t help but cheer and acknowledge the accomplishments of an athlete. Similarly in business, a certain protocol is observed and understood: move up the food chain, get promoted, receive a raise, give a presentation, make a sale. Yet in arts, subjectivity plays such a greater role; even more so, being the best has never been enough to make it on Broadway, the Lyric Opera, the Boston Pops, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, or to be considered among the greatest musicians and artists in history. Art roles and jobs often don’t pay for college, provide a stable job prospect or salary, or appear as a measurable list of goals that you can check off a list as you climb the rings of the artistic ladder. It’s about attending the best schools, making a big break, talking to all the right people, and offering up all the blood, sweat, and tears possible. And even then, there’s no guarantee one will be successful. So it often confuses those who think in terms of logic and measurable means, because art is not measurable. Liken it to attaining goals in sports or business, and you’ll get a conversation at Andrew’s dinner table. The scene presents the constant misunderstanding between logics and artists, and for Andrew, it acts as only more steam in his heated desire to move forward and prove his desire worthy of Fletcher’s expectations, regardless of his family’s inability to comprehend why being a drummer in the core group of Terrence Fletcher’s band at Shaffer Conservatory is worth praising.
The second moment is especially memorable, because it sums up Fletcher’s character for the entire film. After being let go at the conservatory for his mistreatment of students, Fletcher is playing piano in a small jazz band in a bar. Andrew’s curiosity leads him to the bar, where he fails to avoid eye contact with Fletcher when the song is over. So the two start chatting, and when the conversation leads to Fletcher’s forced exit from Shaffer, Fletcher defends his brutal methods for helping students achieve their goals. Yet Andrew suggests that such actions could actually depress a student, and drive one away from becoming great if a teacher comes down too harsh. Fletcher responds that one determined to succeed would never get depressed and give up. It’s an interesting perspective, to consider that any student would never grow tired, depressed, or frustrated enough to actually give up if a teacher were regularly cussing them out, seeking to emotionally and physically injure them, in an effort to break a student so far down that they could achieve the best. But sometimes breaking a student – a human being – down to that point isn’t as inspirational as most movies make it, and even Fletcher himself believes here. Because for all the realism a movie like Whiplash is staked in, with a hardcore teacher that students across the globe have sat at the heels of, experienced the torture of being made to feel so little in order to accomplish the goals the teacher has set out for them, it is a line like Fletcher’s that reminds us that taking some of the most emotional people in the world (those involved in the arts, for those who haven’t caught on), and expecting them to not emotionally respond, is actually counter to both what he hopes to accomplish by said methods. Artists are not excluded from depression, feelings of failure, or giving up.
*Phew* OK, taking a breath from all of that heavy talk. I know I have to get in a word or two about the ending . . . some loved it, some hated it, some felt indifferent. I thought it was an interesting choice, and honestly, I respect the decision to have an ending like it: you don’t see it coming. That said, I can’t pretend that I didn’t uncomfortably shift in my seat, trying to sort out what exactly was happening, and wondering what would happen next.
Whiplash opens up a lot of discussion about a lot of things, but I think I’d be doing this review a disservice by not mentioning that similarly to the journey Andrew experienced in developing his drumming skills to become one of the greats, Whiplash started off as writer-director Damien Chazelle’s dream project, the script having sat on the 2012 Black List of best “not yet produced” screenplays. Thanks to producers Right of Way Films and Blumhouse Productions, Chazelle was able to translate his motion picture into a 18-minute short film, which garnered enough attention at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival that Bold Films picked up the original screenplay, giving us what is now Whiplash.
Andrew’s breakthrough into Terrence Fletcher’s band at the fictional, distinguished Shaffer Conservatory truly mirrors Miles Teller’s graduation into raw, adult performances in film. While he has certainly shined in smaller films or YA adaptations that have him playing the villain (Divergent, 2014), or even occasionally playing an interesting role with promise (The Spectacular Now, 2013), it is Teller’s turn in Whiplash that brings him front and center. What’s more fascinating about his role is that he did a lot of his own drumming after attending a drumming boot camp for two months before filming. However, Teller can’t take all the credit, thanks to the already award-winning editing skills of Tom Cross, who convinced viewers Teller was that good of a jazz drummer. (Fun fact: according to this article, it took two full days to shoot the drum solo in Caravan.)
There isn’t much more I can say about J.K. Simmons other than that this is some of the finest acting he’s ever given. Perhaps he just hasn’t been offered such a meaty role before, but I’d be surprised if his performance in Whiplash didn’t attract at least an Oscar nomination.
Whiplash, however, has more than just career-changing performances. With an impressive jazz soundtrack, sharp editing, and beautiful camera work thanks to cinematographer Sharone Meir, I’d recommend Whiplash to anyone who wants to witness what I believe is one of 2014’s best films, even if I don’t want to see Whiplash again any time soon. (It had that 12 Years a Slave (2013) impact on me that assured me of its greatness, but didn’t make me want to watch it over again.)
I give Whiplash
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