When I first saw the trailer for Whiplash, I didn’t know what the hell to make of it. It appeared to be a typical music school drama, one of those cloying movies like Music of the Heart or Mr. Holland’s Opus where some wide eyed idiot with a passion for music gets inspired by his new age teacher to overcome hardships and win some bullshit competition and blah blah blah music is a metaphor for life man yada yada yada. Then JK Simmons threw a chair at Miles Teller’s head before slapping him several times and I realized this was not your typical music school drama. But what the hell was it then? A spoof? A weirdly specific satire of a subgenre that hasn’t been relevant for years? That didn’t seem quite right either cuz the rest of the trailer was really intense. Weirdly intense. Here, take a look for yourself if you haven’t seen it.
You see that I mean? Who gets this angry about conducting a college Jazz band, even a prestigious one? And who gets so obsessed with pleasing a psychotic teacher that they will practice until they are bleeding all over their drum set? Something wasn’t clicking for me. It just didn’t seem like this would work as a movie. Now that I’ve seen it, I can’t believe how wrong I was. Whiplash is a masterpiece, one of the best and most entertaining films of the year. The fact that it defies easy categorization is one of its many assets. Actually, it doesn’t just ‘defy’ categorization; it spits in its face and calls it a pussy.
This being Oscar season, mainstream critics have been tempted to overanalyze it. Just like they did with Foxcatcher, Birdman and will undoubtedly do with Inherent Vice. I’ve read pieces that say Whiplash is about the lengths we go to hone our inherent talents or about the strive to win and how paralyzing it can be. I’ve also heard people describe it as a psychological thriller, a dissection of the competitive sports/music genre, an indictment of our obsession with building up people’s self-esteem and on and on and on. The things is, these critics are not wrong. All of those things can be found in Whiplash but they’re subtle and the movie never beats you over the head with overwrought themes. There’s an old story I’m reminded of that best describes the movie. A student is asking a filmmaker what his latest work is really about and what it all means. He brings out charts and diagrams, draws allusions to classic works of literature but eventually the filmmaker just sighs and says, “Look, it’s about the telling of itself”.
Whiplash has perfect clarity of vision. It knows exactly what story it wants to tell and how to keep you invested in it. The first time we meet Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), he is banging away on a drum set at The Schaffer School in New York City, a conservatory that seems a lot like Juliard. The kid is clearly talented but is served a slice of humble pie when Professor Terrance Fletcher (JK Simmons), who runs the school’s exclusive Jazz Studio band, enters the room and asks him to go through the rudiments. He starts to comply but Fletcher has already left by the time he looks up. This sets up the central conflict right away: Neiman will spend all of his time trying to please his professor and Fletcher will consistently shoot him down.
Actually, ‘shoot him down’ is a bit of an understatement as Fletcher is more R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket than Richard Dreyfuss’s gentle Mr. Holland. He hurls insults at his students in rapid succession. Part of me wonders if writer director Damian Chazelle let Simmons come up with some of them on his own. Is there three hours of footage sitting around somewhere of Simmons add libbing things like, “Pansy-ass retard, Elmer Fudd wannabee, Pussy ass faggot” in as many variations as possible? If there is, I want it right now. I spent six season watching Simmons act like a lunatic on Oz and never got tired of it. He’s also physically abusive, hurling chairs and slapping people, as you saw in the trailer.
Nobody stops or reports him though. All of his students revere him as much as they fear him, none more than Neiman. He tosses everything else in his life aside, casually dumping his girlfriend and dissing his extended family because they don’t understand that he needs to achieve “greatness”. He needs to show Fletcher than he can be one of the great Jazz players of all time and will go to any lengths to achieve that goal. He practices until his hands bleed, then he bandages them up, and practices some more. Sweat drip off his forehead in waterfalls and his face contorts into such grimaces of pain that you will find yourself cringing.
Whiplash is always just a hair away from becoming ridiculous. I kept waiting for it to take that one step too far into melodrama but it never did. One plot point in the middle of the film was almost too much but it worked because by that point we believed Neiman would be that determined to win despite the trauma he goes through. Teller does a fine job playing him and is a skilled drummer in real life but the films works because Neiman is a well-written character whose motivations we understand. Drums are the most important thing in his life. Since we are able to fully understand and accept that, we are also able to identify and empathize with him. The stakes become as high for us as they are for him.
It doesn’t matter if you know fuck all about music (which I don’t). The movie acts like you do. It doesn’t spell anything out or use cheap motivational speeches to makes you get the gist of how the drums should be played. Characters talk about music and instruments the way real musicians do. They understand what they’re talking about, so we feel like we do too.
JK Simmons has always been a great actor but now that he’s shouting a lot in an awards season movie people might finally notice him. It’s a great role and he relishes every barbed insult. He demands your total attention whenever he is on screen but also makes Fletcher into more than a one-note villain. This man really does believe in his methods. He thinks they will push people in ways that other common teaching styles never could. Late in the film he tells a character that the most harmful words in the English language are, “good job.” You get the sense that Neiman would agree with him on that. There’s also a very tender, moving scene where Fletcher talks to his class about a former student who recently passed away. It shows a side of the character that we previously thought didn’t exist.
The relationship between Neiman and Fletcher is the main focus, so much so that the flick could work as a two-character play, and everything comes to a head in the film’s unbelievably suspenseful climax. I promised myself I wouldn’t do the obvious thing when describing this sequence but I can’t help myself: like Jazz itself, the final twenty minutes are wild, unpredictable, glorious, and beautiful. The music and tensions builds and builds until an explosive final moment. It’s one of those movies where I was sitting there saying, “oh please end right now, right at this point, that would be perfect” and it did.
The best thing about Whiplash is the way it drives you straight through its story. There’s no filler, no pomp and circumstance, no long winded themes, no false sentimentality, and no bullshit. It’s the story of a disturbingly driven student trying to please his abusive teacher. That’s it. The dialogue rings true, the insults sting even as they make you laugh, the characters are well developed and perfectly portrayed, the music is wonderful to listen to and incredibly exciting, and it’s all entertaining as hell. I’ve seen a lot of great movies this year but Whiplash is the one I most want to sit through again. Then again, that could just be because I’m a sick bastard who likes watching JK Simmons yell at people.