dir: Damien Chazelle
Well, whatever the template is in a flick like St Vincent, Whiplash would seem to be the absolute opposite.
This is not, in any way, a flick where an older curmudgeon is brought out of his shell by a younger person who teaches him to reconnect with his humanity and people and Russian prostitutes.
Oh good gods, no.
Whiplash is a superb film. I know, I’m a bit late getting to the table on this one, since it’s been nominated for stuff, and it made many reviewers’ 2014 Best of listicles. It’s up for Best Picture in a couple of weeks. J.K. Simmons has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor. Praising it now seems like throwing confetti after the limo has left the church.
It being superb doesn’t always make it easy to watch. It is tense, and energised, and frightening, in a lot of scenes. It is harrowing to watch what the main character Andrew (Miles Teller) endures for his art. It is disturbing to consider the points the film makes about sacrifice, about needing to suffer to become “great”, and about how, sometimes, it feels like the flick is endorsing the abuse we witness.
It’s also quease inducing to consider the way the main character internalises the abuse he suffers, thinking that not only does he deserve it, but like a soft metal waiting to be shaped and pounded beyond all recognition by a blacksmith, only through passing through the fire can he be made “whole”.
The main character is Andrew, an aspiring jazz drummer studying at a prestigious conservatory (not called Julliard, but it’s clearly modelled on something like Julliard). But, just like everyone remembers Hannibal Lecter more than Clarice from Silence of the Lambs, or the vicious drill sergeant (the great R. Lee Ermy) from Full Metal Jacket more than anything else about the flick, the real singularity at the centre of this story is Dr Fletcher (J. K. Simmons).
Why? Well, it could be because he is some kind of monster that all the students are terrified of. It could be because his particular type of menace lingers on long after he leaves or before he even enters a room. The young musicians in his charge openly tremble when he berates them, and they are never, ever allowed to be complacent.
It’s quite a performance. It’s a venomous, lethal, monstrous performance. Reality, gravity, light seem to bend around him when he’s in the scene, forcing particles themselves to shift direction because of his malevolent fury.
And why is this happening? Is it just because he’s a sadistic control freak? Is it for something important or justifiable? Is it remotely acceptable behaviour from anyone that isn’t Gordon Ramsey, or some three hat Michelin chef, or Malcolm Tucker / Peta Credlin, or some other malicious dominatrix?
It’s for goddamn jazz music, the least possible justifiable reason on Earth.
I am no fan of The Jazz, not at all. Of all the music I’ve ever owned on tape or CD, or at least downloaded, or ever voluntarily listened to, less than one per cent would be jazz or even jazz related. To put it differently, I have more albums from Bulgarian folk performers / Tuvan throat singers than I do of any of America’s jazzy greats.
The music doesn’t appeal to me. It doesn’t need to appeal to you either in order to enjoy this masterful film. In fact, if you do love jazz, it’ll probably make you hate it.
This is the equivalent of liking the eating of the chicken, but then getting to see the horrible lives of battery hens first hand. It’s akin to watching a poultry farmer who’s screaming the eggs out of the chickens.
Maybe not quite. Fletcher certainly has his reasons, and we can guess whether they’re valid or not, but most of all what we come to appreciate is the sheer ferocity of the man. I don’t even know if he really, totally, utterly loves the music or not, or whether he just wants the trains to run on time, or whether he wants to see if he can make living people’s bones crumble under the sheer force of his withering contempt.
What he really seems to relish is any opportunity to render the musicians in front of him quivering wrecks, because then they’ll obey him without question. In a very telling scene, quite a while after the abuse has started, Fletcher is quizzing Andrew about his life and his parents. Not five minutes later we clearly see and hear why: just like with the aforementioned Hannibal Lecter, he’ll use any personal information you give him or that he finds out to climb inside your mind and then destroy you from within.
If Fletcher were an actual drill sergeant on Parris Island, dragging young idiots through boot camp, then you would see what he’s doing perhaps as justifiable. It’s the ‘break them down to build them up” again concept which results in either superlative, obedient warriors or deranged psychopaths who kill you then turn the gun on themselves.
In the context of a film about jazz music, it would be reasonable to wonder what the hell pretext justifies such behaviour. We understand at least superficially what Andrew’s motivation for putting up with the abuse is, in that he really does think if he endures it all and works hard he’ll come out the other side a jazz legend. Fletcher explicitly at one point tells us (and Andrew) directly that the ‘tough’ standard he forces the students to adhere to is all for the purpose of creating the next Charlie Parker, the next Buddy Rich.
This all seems to hinge on what is an apocryphal story about someone throwing a cymbal at Charlie Parker, frightening / shaming him into practicing as hard as possible, and then coming out of the experience a new man, a new Jazz Man! The fact that the story is bullshit is irrelevant: it’s a myth. Myths have power, and it’s not because they’re historically accurate.
The important thing is that Fletcher believes it (at least he says he does: considering when he says it, and what follows, it’s entirely possible Fletcher only tells it to Andrew in order to lull him into what is again as very false sense of security / real sense of insecurity). And Andrew comes to believe it too.
There is a clear notion of poisonous fatherhood here. Andrew has a dad (Paul Reiser), a supportive loving father who supports and cherishes his son no matter what. But that unconditional love, while wonderful, doesn’t mean as much to Andrew as striving to somehow ‘earn’ the approval of this dark father figure that Fletcher sets out to become. He psychologically fucks around with the heads of the students, and Andrew specifically, to make it so they perpetually crave his approval and yet can never earn it.
Poor Andrew. Miles Teller as this poor guy: your heart breaks for him for what he puts up with, and yet then it hardens a little as you see the jerk he becomes under the strict discipline of this demented sociopath. He sacrifices everything for this, for what he wants (relationship, health, sanity, perspective), and it’s never enough. Every time it seems like he’s getting somewhere, Fletcher finds a new way to put him off his game, to make him feel insecure and shitty, to never feel like he’s on solid footing.
Teller is fine in this role, never overplaying it, always coming across as the kind of guy who will take all this abuse and hold his tongue, endure just a little bit longer, until even he can’t take it no more. He is pushed beyond reasonable sane limits, and yet he keeps trying. It is agony watching him continuing to play when his hands are dripping blood, it’s even worse watching him desperately scrambling to get to a performance seconds after surviving a car crash.
He gives it his all (the actor and the character), and yet his sad fate is that it’ll never be remembered the way J. K. Simmons will be remembered. His actions as Fletcher will be pop culture references for years to come, whereas no-one’s going to remember the target of his abuses. Surely this means good work and even better performances to look forward to (from Miles: I think this is J.K.’s pinnacle, really, after J. Jonah Jameson and this, where else is there to go?)
And the ending… ye gods above and below, the ending. Just when I thought the flick and the main character had made their peace with their lot in life, had done enough, had realised that there was more to life, Andrew makes what seems like a strange decision. I would put it on a par with an abused altar boy returning to the church where his parish priest gave him far more than Communion just to serve another Sunday Mass, and it’s horrifying and soul destroying and demoralising all over again.
And then… and then…
The film achieved something extraordinary. I had goosebumps when the end credits started rolling, and my partner and I were just muttering ‘wow’ to each other, not really understanding what we’d just watched, but feeling like we’d just watched something sublime. I know the arguments against what it represents intellectually, and I have grave misgivings about what it ultimately is saying about ends justifying means etc, but none of that mattered when I was watching that last sequence of the film.
There was something so joyous, so cathartic, so full throated a “Fuck You!” to the Fletchers of this world about that ending, regardless of what else you can say about it.
Bravo, to all concerned, bravo. Definitely one of the great films of 2014, and I say that fully aware of how overpraised it has been, but it really is a fantastically well made film.
9 times any illusions or vestiges I ever had of wanting to play music ever again were smothered to death by watching this film out of 10
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than: Good Job.” – there are plenty worse, like “trust me” or “investment opportunity” or “just friends” – Whiplash.