by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 94% Certified Fresh
PLOT: A promising young drummer at a prestigious music conservatory is mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student’s potential.
That’s right, I finally jumped on the bandwagon and watched Whiplash after no fewer than eight years of prodding by my fellow cinephiles. Not only can they finally get off my back about it, but they all now owe me one. Hope you all enjoy Wild Tales when next we meet.
I was hesitant to watch Whiplash because it was released and gained notoriety at a time in my life when I was yearning for some positivity after getting psychically beaten down by some really depressing foreign films. Why, I asked myself, would I want to subject myself to ninety minutes of watching J.K. Simmons verbally abuse some poor kid just so he could play the drums a little better? I’ve seen this movie before. The abusive mentor sees the light, the victimized student either turns his back or excels like never before, etcetera, etcetera, blah blah blah. I had the whole plot written out in my head from start to finish. (I used to do that a lot, I’m realizing…kinda stupid, in most cases.)
Having just finished watching it, I can say, without reservation, that Whiplash belongs on the short list of the best films ever made about the drive for artistic perfection along with The Red Shoes, Black Swan, and Amadeus. And it manages to have its cake and eat it, too, when it comes to the ending. Tragedy and triumph walk hand in hand, though not necessarily in the way I would have ever imagined it.
Andrew (Miles Teller) is a talented young jazz drummer who has just started his first year at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music. He is anxious to gain the attention of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the leader of the school’s prestigious jazz ensemble, The Studio Band. Fletcher is a piece of work. To say he engages in mind games is like saying Bill Gates dabbles in computers. He recruits Andrew for his own band in the middle of someone else’s music class. On his first day with the Studio Band, Fletcher berates another musician for playing off key.
Did I say “berates?” Fletcher belittles, humiliates, and degrades the poor guy with a stream of profanity that would have made the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket envious. He fires the guy on the spot. When the guy leaves, Fletcher looks around and confesses that he wasn’t really out of tune, but he didn’t know he wasn’t, which is just as bad. Accurate? Technically yes. Does that kind of teaching method belong anywhere outside of a military unit? I’m going with “no.”
Andrew is willing to go along with this because he doesn’t just want to be good, he wants to be GREAT. He wants to be remembered in the same breath with Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich, and he believes, like Fletcher, that greatness is not achieved without struggle and sacrifice. Again, technically true. Would Rembrandt have painted half as well with both ears? Would Beethoven’s Ninth be remembered today if Beethoven hadn’t been totally deaf by the time it was finished? The rolls of the Screen Actors Guild are littered with actors from broken or abusive homes.
There’s a revealing scene when Andrew eats a meal at home with his father and uncle and his two cousins. The table conversation rings with praise for the two cousins who play football at their school and scored a long touchdown, etcetera. When Andrew talks about being a “core” member of the best conservatory jazz ensemble in the country, he’s met with polite congratulations and that’s about it. No one seems to think he’s going to make it as a musician, not even his own father. “I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was.” Like Charlie Parker. Like Amadeus. Andrew’s only goal is to be great. If he has to give up friends, romance, even family to achieve it, so be it.
But at what cost? Fletcher pushes Andrew so hard that his hands bleed during rehearsals. He demotes Andrew, then puts him back in the core, demotes him again, then basically makes him re-audition for the core spot against two other alternates until 2 am. In one excruciating scene, Andrew actually tries to play in a competition after being in a freaking car accident. It’s a truly desperate act from someone who is so afraid of being anonymous that only a body cast will stop him from taking his shot.
Make no mistake, the rehearsal scenes and the verbal and mental abuse from Fletcher are not pleasant. They’re emotionally engaging, but they were also off-putting. In a strange way, I was reminded of Requiem for a Dream and its disturbing subject matter that was nevertheless compelling to watch. When we get to what happens to Andrew after the car accident, I was getting thoroughly depressed, despite the powerful emotional beats of what came before.
But then the movie enters its final act, and that’s where Whiplash finds another gear story-wise. Andrew and Fletcher meet in an out-of-school setting, and Fletcher has an interesting speech where he says, among other things, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” He admits his tactics were brutal, but he devoutly believes in the necessity of pushing people beyond what is expected of them. “Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong.”
Fletcher convinces Andrew to play for a new jazz ensemble one last time. What happens at that concert is so horrifying that I watched most of it through my fingers. I kid you not. But then the screenplay transforms that situation into something magical, almost religious. You get the sense that all of the horrible and despicable things Fletcher did and said during the whole film, all misery we had to endure with Andrew, during which time I wondered, “Why am I watching this??” – all of that unpleasantness was just the setup for the finale. And that finale only means something because of everything that came before it.
In other words, just like Andrew, I was only able to experience that tremendous cathartic moment at the end because of the suffering I had experienced in the movie’s first 90 minutes.
…which leaves me feeling torn because that’s exactly the kind of thing that Fletcher believes in, but which I feel is unnecessary outside of a boot camp. Ideally, yeah, I think that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. I’ve directed my fair share of community theatre productions, and I’ve never had to resort to yelling or humiliation as a method to get what I’m looking for. But then, I’m directing community theatre, not a multi-million-dollar film that may live or die on the performances I’m getting or not getting from my star. Nor am I a drill sergeant training men to become soldiers. It seems there is a line, but apparently to get certain kinds of results, it must be crossed.
It’s this dichotomy that will likely keep me awake the next couple of notes. That and the senses-shattering finale. I mean…I did not see that coming. (And man, I am a jazz fan, so to me it was like eating a perfectly-cooked steak.) It was not a pleasant road to get there, but it had to be unpleasant. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been great.