Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is a very good film that takes on a tired template, the stand-off between the ambitious but vulnerable student and the tyrannical teacher. Chazelle refreshes the story by turning it into a kind of horror movie, psychologically tense and with the requisite shedding of blood that keeps moviegoers interested.
Here that story is set at the prestigious Schaeffer Music Academy, a moody citadel that’s as isolated from the instant gratification culture as the Bermuda Triangle. These students are expected to read lots of music and practice, practice, practice. And its focus eventually cuts out every musician except two keyed up human souls, one who has seen greatness and is haunted by it, and the other who has seen mediocrity and is haunted by that, and has staked a fierce claim for excellence at school.
Whiplash has received accolades across the board, at Sundance and with critics. Its chief critic, Richard Brody, a jazz nut at The New Yorker, says it has no music in its soul. But this movie is all about souls, just as it’s a movie that’s not about jazz, but one that needs an arena in which to film a great duel. It chooses a demanding music school that happens to teach jazz. The student and teacher fall into an insane contest with each other, and when it is filmed with such tight discipline, edits duly punctuated by sax and clarinet horns, long shots attacked by jagged sweat cymbal edits for the virtuoso drumwork, we get to see what happens to the soul during the awful pursuit of greatness, a life changing test of endurance. Ask Michael Jordan battling the NBA Finals with the flu. He doesn’t even know he’s sick because he has entered a new spiritual dimension of endurance and body leaving.
There are people left behind on this path. Whiplash opens with Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) enjoying an old movie with his dad Jim (Paul Reiser), a failed writer turned schoolteacher. Andrew spills the raisinets into the popcorn bag they’re sharing. He tells dad he doesn’t eat the candy, but around it. He also catches a glimpse of a college aged girl working the concession stand. Both people will lose his interest.
Soon he’s back in a tight room with pictures of great jazz drummers on the wall. Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker are discussed and lionized throughout the film. The boy sits on the floor with an out of date CD stereo and the Rich disc. He’s more tender with it than anything else. It strikes us as funny that a 19-year-old is so taken with becoming a drummer in a style so out of date.
In the rookies room he catches the eye of studio band instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons in a career role). He pulls Andrew up the ranks. With this confidence instilled he goes to ask the concession stand girl out, all in a one-take, master shot. She says yes. They have a date where he finds out she’s not as driven as he is.
At the first day of studio band Fletcher verbally abuses an overweight horn player and dismisses him. He asks Andrew to pick up his tempo. It’s a simple and demanding task for Andrew (Miles Teller is a marvelous and compelling actor with a scar on his chin; he has played drums, as a teen for a Butt Rock band in Florida; for Whiplash he learned swing-jazz style). Andrew tries to pick up the pace. Fletcher hurls a chair at him. He slaps him into reading time signatures aloud.
Fletcher is the Full Metal Jacket Drill Sargent of Charlie Parker-obsessed jazz teachers. But the fedora hatted Simmons can subdue his personality in a snap to medium cool and float along with real world people politely, moments after wreaking havoc–a testament to the serious acting muscle Simmons has hidden from us. Fletcher is a stranger villain than R. Lee Ermy could be.
Andrew practices alone more. When he’s recruited to actually compete, a shock-twist happens that hurls the movie into an expressionism, a reality ultra heightened. The random events that cause the intensity, flat tires, stolen notebooks, are random but service to heighten the drama and make this a movie, not a documentary, a document that’s first and foremost an emotion. Andrew drums deep cuts into his hands. Does every drummer bleed so much on themselves and the drum kit skins? I doubt it. But in order for the Ubermench vibe to take shape the volume has to rise.
Whiplash culminates in a scene of battle between the two warriors that casts a spell. Such exacting standards destroyed David Helfgott (Geoffery Rush) in Shine. But in the Post-Empire America for a young man vying passionately for the 1 percent of global competitors, then the acting (Teller) and the performance (Andrew) are made of more frightening confidence and steely soul. Eighty-percent of Harvard’s students are depressed. They slave to get there and find it still hasn’t guaranteed a path. If they were obsessed with Buddy Rich (or Facebook), or had to deal with a Terence Fletcher they might not have time to be depressed.
Back to the critique that the film is about music but with no music in its soul. It’s a point that deserves to be argued with because it’s not all wrong. This film shows, with one moving-in-slow shot of the concerned father, that Andrew isn’t experiencing a moment of poetic grace or expression. He is descending into madness. If he was a literary man he’d be writing Infinite Jest, not Moby Dick. There’s also the vibe of the Schaeffer music school that intrigues you. The isolated practice rooms shot from a narrow hall’s distance. Andrew’s entire existence is painted as lonely. The green-lamped library and spare contest stage (audience hidden) – all are competitive zones of limited personality. The set, lighting, and costume design are as sharply clean, private, and strange as Ayn Rand’s living room.
The living jazzman, Denzel Washington, in Spike Lee’s Mo Betta Blues juggles women and argues styles with fellow musicians over mason jar drinks. The gifted jazzman Chet Baker is a straight drug addict, telling interviewers that stimulants are quite important to his creative process. Andrew is an ascetic compared. Fletcher reminds his pupils of the holy moment when Count Basie Orchestra drummer Jo Jones flings a drum cymbal at Charlie Parker for playing badly. A toss that allegedly caused Charlie Parker to practice, and practice enough to finally become Charlie Parker. Fletcher wasn’t there.
But I think what the filmmakers understand is that neither Andrew Neyman nor Terence Fletcher are preternaturally gifted. They can’t take to the intoxicated unknown. This touching (and unifying) truth floats down to surface as they meet at a Brooklyn jazz club in the third act. Fletcher is sitting in on piano (not being insane). He tells Andrew that the worst 2 words a teacher can tell a student is “good job.” He criticizes Starbucks jazz compilations, and a new American scene that gives everyone an A. He’s right. The standards are falling. Sustained concentration is impossible. Jazz (and literature) are an anachronism. Fletcher needs his militaristic relationship to the music because it’s dying, AND because it doesn’t float as freely from his inner core.
He keeps telling the Charlie Parker story because he’s not Charlie Parker. Is the story about Parker true? The biographers say Jo Jones merely dropped the cymbal and everyone jumped and laughed, drunk. And Charlie Parker didn’t go run off and behave like Miles Teller. It doesn’t matter. What matters is this teacher, a great character for film, believes it’s true. That little story has given him a skeleton for surviving, a code of living that has sustained him. In a quick look Teller reveals a lovely admiration for that, from the man who put him through hell. The two men who want to see that bright light more than anyone else in the bar.
What’s more, Chazelle has told the tale rather objectively. Anyone can get something different out of Whiplash. I believe there’s a critique of our times here. He knows New York isn’t full of drunken jazz greats, Jackson Pollock, James Agee and Norman Mailer, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, Ginsberg and beatific Trotskyites; not even The Ramones remain. What has replaced them in the world of Whiplash are maddeningly pious teachers who have the cultural knowledge and distribute it only to the children who can afford to learn. This truth is all over Jim Neyman’s dinner table and Schaeffer Academy, and it’s what makes Teller’s performance so lonely and interesting. Brave and sad is the boy who hasn’t yet realized that the gatekeepers are full of shit– when he creates anyway, with a fury that burns to know itself.
There’s still the artist in him that his father recognizes as different from his own sensibility. The kid who fights his jock family at the dinner table and dumps raisinets into his popcorn is indeed one of the weirdos. After his dark night of the soul, his globally competitive drummer boy brainwashing, there’s no telling what he’ll do next. He’s only 19. It doesn’t seem impossible that Andrew would let his freak flag fly later and discover some Bitches Brew.
The heart of art rests on such hopes.