Whiplash – one of the most critically-acclaimed films of the recent flood of Oscar-botherers – contains the kind of story that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has seen more than a dozen movies during their lifetime. The protagonist-student-versus-antagonist-teacher plot – here in the form of a young drummer being pushed to his limits by a bullying professor keen to turn a rough diamond into a Buddy Rich-style great – doesn’t exactly break new ground, and indeed fits snugly into more than one of the famous seven story archetypes that we frequently encounter when paying our money / taking our chances. Then there are the unsatisfying, lightly-explored sub-plots revolving around the private life of the young drummer in question, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), which fail to develop his relationships with or the characters of his father Jim (Paul Reiser) and love interest Nicole (Melissa Benoist) with necessary conviction. And the script, which sparkles at times with its venomous insults and bitter, jealous asides and tackles the question of whether the ends justify the means enthusiastically, actually contains little fresh insight on the subject of artistic commitment, merely delivering Whiplash‘s own variant of a 30-year-old line from Fame. To paraphrase: Neiman has got big dreams. He wants fame. Well, fame costs, and right here is where he starts paying … in sweat. But – and, yeah, here’s the ‘but’, neatly slotted in after my initial grumbles – I enjoyed Whiplash a lot, and was gripped by director Damien Chazelle’s breakthrough work for the most part.
The film’s most celebrated performance, J.K. Simmons as the monstrous professor / band leader Terence Fletcher, has already been decreed by those who don’t actually get to decide such matters as The Biggest Shoe-in For Oscar Success since the last Biggest Shoe-in For Oscar Success, though I feel that’s a little unfair on Mark Ruffalo, and arguably Edward Norton and Ethan Hawke too (Robert Duvall’s performance in The Judge, which has earned that veteran a nomination, I haven’t seen and therefore can’t comment on). The requirements of Ruffalo as an actor in Foxcatcher and the requirements of Simmons as an actor here are different enough to make a mockery of the idea that one performance can be held up as being superior to the other, but obviously there’s lots of hype drummed up by such compartmentalisation and competition so I appreciate that needs must, and all that. Simmons is certainly magnetic, chewing and spitting out the scenery with the same alacrity that his Fletcher chews and spits out band members but, Norton’s turn in Birdman aside, his part is perhaps the one out of those referred to above that really demands that you sit upright and pay attention, thanks to the incessant, vitriolic barking. (I should state for purposes of clarification that I’m not criticising Simmons – I was relieved to find out that he is as good in this film as I’d been led to believe – I’m merely stating that singling him out as an obvious frontrunner may be partly due to the nature of the character as much as the actor’s performance. Though, of course, he may well win on acting merit; he would probably be my choice, on balance, though I should make further reference to the Duvall-istic caveat above.)
Anyway. The beat of Whiplash, if you will, is sustained by Fletcher’s ferocious verbal and physical attacks on Neiman (primarily) and the other band members of Shaffer Conservatory’s competition-hardened band, supposedly the best jazz orchestra in the best musical academy in the USA. This is a brutal but spellbinding and entertaining spectacle of bullying, designed to simultaneously amuse and repulse with its relentless mix of nasty-but-quotable putdowns and vicious racist or homophobic invective. It is uncomfortable to sit through and yet it is addictive, leaving you wanting more each time Fletcher disappears. Simmons delivers his lines with aplomb, but there is far more to his performance and the character than mere shouting, which has sadly been overlooked by some who have likened it to R. Lee Ermey’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Not that the comparison is incorrect; it’s just that Ermey’s character hits his one note perfectly and, understandably given his background, was not required by Kubrick to do anything else. Fletcher is more complicated, and more interesting as a result. His personality is initially established during a series of scenes in which we learn much from the reverent, hushed words of music students and the barely-disguised contempt of a fellow teacher. Later, we see why all of these people are scared of him, or wary, but there’s more here than initially meets the eye. Does he give Andrew an opportunity because he is talented or does he give him an opportunity because he is both talented and also identifiable, in the opening scene, as someone that is open to intimidation? Is Fletcher a man driven by his own egotistical desire to be associated with top-class musicians or is he genuinely so in love with jazz he merely wants talented jazz musicians to become great and rise to the top? When he learns of the death of a former student – magnificent scene, by the way – is he crying because the world has lost a formidable talent or is it because it’s another apparent failure, as a teacher, to hand his favoured genre a lasting gift on a plate? Or are the tears dropping because of his acceptance that the death has, in no small way, resulted from lasting psychological damage caused by his teaching methods? And just how can an inherently evil man play piano in a jazz club so beautifully?
Whiplash is largely fascinating because of Fletcher’s ambiguity, which is heightened by the character’s duplicitous nature, seen on numerous occasions: he appears to be caring when he asks Neiman about his upbringing, but then uses the information as a stick with which to beat the pupil, turning him into ‘one of those single-teared people’ he supposedly despises; later on (spoiler alert) a seemingly-friendly conversation in a club is, effectively, the set-up for a cruel trick … or so it seems. There is a possible reading that the character is supposed to be schizophrenic, and his constant stereotypy – a clenched fist indicating musicians have made some infraction or other and should stop immediately – goes some way to supporting this. Either way the character is the hard evidence of some terrific writing by Chazelle, whose story is based to some extent on his own experiences in a high school jazz band.
Andrew is less-complicated, though not without depth, or his own contradictions. Chazelle uses the old trick of sending his character to the cinema (‘hey, he’s one of us!’) in order to increase his appeal early on, before making him less and less likeable as the film progresses. On the one hand there is a sympathy-inducing naivety in his desire to impress Fletcher and in his awkward courting of Nicole, but she and several other characters are on the receiving end of his ruthlessness soon enough. His cousins (at least I think they are cousins) receive short shrift around the dinner table when daring to detail their own achievements in American Football. Gradually his single-mindedness becomes so extreme he begins to resemble a sociopath: after a car accident he causes, for example, Andrew is asked about his welfare by a witness, but he fails to ask how the other party to the crash is, or to undertake any of the other requirements that usually follow such an incident. His rivalry with fellow drummers at Shaffer – engineered to an extent by the Machiavellian teacher – results in some further evidence of sociopathy, with the clear implication at one point that what we have seen on camera is actually a lie: an important document that appears to have been misplaced has, in fact, been deliberately discarded. The mentor can barely contain his delight when he sees the signs of this immoral, win-at-all-costs mentality in his charge, having identified it as a pre-requisite within the competitive field of professional jazz musicianship. It’s dog-eat-dog out there, and even when Fletcher himself is on the receiving end it turns quickly enough into realisation that this may be ‘his’ Buddy Rich, or Charlie Parker (the two musicians Whiplash references most often).
The insults, the psychological torture, the sweat and blood – regularly seen bouncing off the top of cymbals – all leads to a superb ending, which I won’t spoil. However I did find it completely satisfying, and loaded with all sorts of charged, orgasmic looks that act as a sexual climax of sorts, as much as a musical one, after all the apparent masochism throughout the film. It’s the kind of ending that makes you want to stand up and cheer, but you know that doing so will make you feel inherently dirty. Who exactly are we rooting for here? Whose achievement are we celebrating, and are we condoning what they have done to attain it?
Directed and written with flair, Whiplash utilises two main pieces of music in the story – Hank Levy’s Whiplash and Juan Tizol’s standard Caravan – imbuing both with a kind of quasi-mystical feel. Chazelle attempts to marry David Helfgott’s pursuit of Rachmaninoff’s demanding 3rd Concerto in Shine with the story of Icarus, and succeeds, while Andrew’s practice sessions on the drums act as fills for the soundtrack. The film is edited in a pleasing fashion, often in keeping with the rhythm and tempo of the music being played (an opening montage of typical New York street scenes is particularly effective), and Chazelle marries sounds with images well throughout. It’s unfortunate that events in Andrew’s private life feel a little by-the-numbers, and perhaps your enjoyment will be greater if you go expecting to be presented with a series of questions about the notion of achievement and the means of attaining it rather than any illuminating answers, but these points are raised merely to try and create a sense of balance here. In truth Whiplash is an extremely strong work and I left my local cinema thinking of the film as a great example of why I love this art form. Most of all I was impressed by Teller’s intense physical performance – you can only get so far with this industry’s overflowing bag of tricks – and Simmons’s conviction as the cold-hearted bastard who is simultaneously the best and worst thing that could have possibly happened to the drummer; their numerous scenes together – with their abundances of clenched fists, grimaces, two-way explosions of rage and uncomfortable breakdowns – are being rightly celebrated.
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
Running Time: 106 minutes