First point: The director has a truly awesome name. Anyone named Damien is awesome.
The ballroom at the student center at the University of Colorado is named the Glenn Miller ballroom, after one of the most prominent swing and big bandleaders in history who briefly attended the school in the mid 1920s before dropping out. If you visit a small town named Fort Morgan to the northeast, you will see on the sign as you enter town, “Boyhood home of Glenn Miller.” Roughly an hour away from Fort Morgan, bordering the city of Greeley, is a very small town named La Salle. Miller once asked a man from La Salle to be his drummer as he struck out on tour, years before fame hit, but my great grandfather felt it was irresponsible to leave his railroad job, what with having a family and all. Or so the family story says, anyway. I have not followed in his footsteps at all. I’ve played guitar for 13 years now, but I have no interest in drums and little interest in or understanding of jazz. The fact that this tangential connection to Glenn Miller, never one of the favorites of jazz aficionados, is as close to jazz as I can get should be enough to explain that.
That story was a roundabout way of explaining that I’m enough of a musician and have enough of a musical background that I know my limitations as a listener, and I know that two things I do not understand well are drums and jazz. I have listened to Phil Collins and Mike Portnoy play drum solos next to each other and, while they’re certainly different, I couldn’t really say from listening to those solos that Portnoy is the superior player, and that’s definitely what critical consensus would say. That limitation made the entire film Whiplash interesting, because it made me all the more aware of how minute the details that Terence Fletcher is throwing a fit about are–I could not hear the out of tune trombone or tell that the double time swing wasn’t fast enough, and it made his intensity all the more compelling, mystifying, and terrifying all at once. Were the differences even there? Was he just a crazy man making up reasons to scream at his students?
And because I was trying to figure out what Fletcher was hearing and whether it was even real, it made the film’s plot more acceptable, because in reality it was a cliched sports movie plot just put in a new setting. It’s a film about the glory of perseverance, suggesting that a single-minded focus and unwillingness to give up is what is necessary to be great, not talent. In the end, the film even defends its villain’s actions by giving him the goal he was seeking throughout: his own Bird, who would not be broken and indeed came back stronger when attacked.
The plot is simple. Andrew Neymann is an apparently below-average student at an exceptional music program, studying jazz drumming, when he comes under the tutelage of Terence Fletcher, an extremely strict, demanding, drill sergeant of a conductor with a foul mouth to make R. Lee Ermey proud. Fletcher’s intense driving pushes Neymann to be a better drummer, but also leads him down a dark path psychologically, and he teeters on the edge between genius and a nervous breakdown as the final result, having pushed himself beyond what any reasonable person would consider his limits thanks to the pushing of Fletcher. It’s not a dissimilar plot from Rocky (John G. Avildsen, USA 1976), Rudy (David Anspaugh, USA 1993), or any of 50 other sports movies (Some of which are not one word starting with R and ending with Y.) or The Paper Chase (James Bridges, USA 1973)–it’s just a new setting for the same story.
That said, what sets it apart from many of those stories is the way that it shows the pain and torment of the journey. Neymann’s pain is absolutely palpable as he tries to find a way to put enough band-aids on his hands that he can hold his sticks without them slipping through the blood. His cold single-mindedness shows through when he breaks up with his girlfriend pre-emptively because of his own assumption that she would get in the way of his progress as a drummer. It’s a painful journey; so painful that the film cannot even fully endorse it, as Neymann’s final, triumphant solo is accompanied by something approaching insanity in his eyes as he and his maniacal teacher become one.
Chazelle and cinematographer Sharone Meir are content to shoot the film conventionally–everything looks exactly how one would expect, with darkness enveloping Neymann’s emotional breakdown and bright light accompanying his moments of success, with little noteworthy in the look of the film. It’s competent, but it’s nothing special.
The acting, however, is special. I’ve been a fan of J.K. Simmons ever since I first saw Thank You for Smoking (Jason Reitman, USA 2005). His over-the-top angry B.R. is one of the highlights of one of the funniest films in recent memory, and he has continued to be great since, whether it’s with a single-episode appearance on Parks and Recreation or his recurring role in Farmers Insurance commercials. (His sitcom, however, was truly awful–it did not deserve him.) In this film, he’s playing a serious version of the same chracter he played in Thank You for Smoking: a borderline insane, constantly angry, screaming, ranting madman. However, where in Thank You for Smoking he was so over the top as to be laughable, in this film, his anger is subdued just enough to go from hilarious to terrifying. B.R. was clearly not real, but Terence Fletcher seems all too real, and the way that he can suddenly turn off asshole mode and act like a calm, regular individual when not leading his band makes it even more terrifying but also helps to humanize a role that could easily be a caricature. It’s an excellent performance. However, it’s easy to miss what an excellent job Miles Teller does in the nominal lead role, having to play a wide swath of emotions and also somehow let us feel at least a measure of sympathy for a kid who is, on the whole, a selfish asshole. No one else really has anything to do, though it was interesting to see Paul Reiser for the first time in a decade.
The score is appropriately discordant. Justin Hurwitz provides non-diegetic score that is not so much music as musical sounds that are constantly at odds with the music being played, heightening the sense of Andrew’s failures, as though the small mistakes he is making sound like these discordant noises to him.
All told, Whiplash is nothing new and it’s a bit dull on the visual side, but it does execute some typical things extremely well. The plot and point are rather cliche, but the excellent acting and sound and the film’s willingness to admit the pain involved in such hard work–the type of pain we never really saw Rocky Balboa go through–still make it a worthy viewing.
- For the record, I could, however, tell whether Neymann was rushing or dragging. According to the IMDb, Miles Teller could not.
- I would all but guarantee that the story about the drummer throwing a cymbal at Charlie Parker is nonsense. It probably grew out of the same mythos as Robert or Tommy Johnson selling his soul to the devil.
- For a film about jazz, it is odd how little improvisation seems to be present. Improvisation is one of the most defining elements of jazz, and yet here we have this maniacal teacher/conductor who insists on absolutely precise recreation of the notes on the paper. And then in the end, it’s not reproduction that gets Neymann Fletcher’s approval, it’s a solo.
- I’m not sure if we were supposed to think from Fletcher’s jazz cafe appearance that he was himself an unimpressive musician, but the singular unimpressiveness of his piano playing made me wonder if the idea was that he was trying to push musicians to be what he was incapable of himself.
- In one of his books (I have read several, so I honestly do not remember which.), William Goldman presents a short story that he wrote, writes a short screenplay version of the story, and then talks to a bunch of potential collaborators about what they see in his screenplay–it’s an awesome exercise that I wish we could see repeated often. The story is of a young boy whose barber father becomes partners with a crotchety, arrogant barber who sees his haircuts as art. One thing Goldman immediately says is that it’s instinct to want to soften what an asshole his lead character is for the screenplay but that “we need to hold on to that. It’s who he is.” When we saw Fletcher in the jazz cafe, I really expected that to be the scene where the film apologized for him–I expected him to say, “Andrew, I just wanted to help you find the Bird in you, and I’m sorry.” The fact that he didn’t apologize even as he explained himself but instead remained defiant was a great job of sticking to the character. Chazelle did hold on to who his character was, and that’s to his credit.
- Am I the only one who really expected Andrew to throw a cymbal at Fletcher to end his solo?