Whiplash: Greatness, At Any Cost

Whiplash starts the only way a movie about jazz drumming can; with a drum-only fanfare. It accelerates, it goes from a slow, foreboding rhythm to a disorienting heart-pounding drum solo. […]

Whiplash starts the only way a movie about jazz drumming can; with a drum-only fanfare. It accelerates, it goes from a slow, foreboding rhythm to a disorienting heart-pounding drum solo. From the moment Whiplash unleashes that fanfare to the very last frame, it doesn’t let up. Every single scene explodes, and if it doesn’t explode, it seems primed to explode in a way very reminiscent of Hitchcockian suspense. It’s as brutal as it gets, and like a hungry beast, it’s only out for one thing: your throat.

The movie follows the journey of one Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a 19 year old jazz drummer at a fictional musical academy that somehow manages to wow Terrence Fletcher (JK Simmons) into accepting Neyman into his jazz band, known to many as the first step towards a jazz career. Of course, then it follows that Fletcher and Neyman would build a close relationship where Fletcher molds Neyman into the next Buddy Rich.

But there’s a twist, of course; and it’s that Fletcher is an abusive mentor. Someone who takes his students and tries them by fire. Not the fire of practice, but the fire of fear. Through physical and emotional abuse, he hopes to inspire the next Charlie Parker (who, as the myth often goes, became “Bird” when his band leader threw a cymbal at his face. So he decided to go home and practice until he became a true legend) the question the movie then offers is the idea of whether Fletcher is even close to reasonable or justifiable if he succeeds once.

Whiplash is first and foremost a two-hander about two men who are willing to sacrifice something for their art. The difference is that the sacrifices are made are not healthy, either to themselves or others. And it would not work if it wasn’t anchored by two of the greatest performances of the year: Miles Teller takes Neyman and makes him a very unique figure. Someone who’s utterly unlikeable at times and who has been intoxicated by the ultra-masculine figure haunting his life while J.K Simmons goes back to his days in Oz to bring back the inherent danger of his most famous persona. The dynamic between Teller and Simmons as a student and teacher on their way to utter self-destruction sells the movie’s brutality in a way that makes most action movies out this year cry and beg for mercy.

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It’s worth pointing out, too, that Whiplash is as much about the inherent danger lurking under the thin surface that we define as “manliness” as it is about passion or art. At the core of the movie, is the relationship of two men who define themselves in relation to other men and who can’t see any life outside of a man’s life. One full of violence, both emotional and physical. Men who are so intoxicated by this lifestyle they seem doomed to find no other possible life but one where they’re slaves to their passions and how they work as outlets for their inner desires for brutality and trepidation.

I think this is an aspect that has been missing from a lot of the conversation when it comes to the film. In fact a common complaint has been that Whiplash fails simply by having a character who wants to be remembered for being a great jazz musician in 2013. In actuality, this analysis forgets that Whiplash doesn’t operate in the same realm as the usual coming-of-age stories about artists. It instead operates in the same realm of movies like Gone Girl, which try to take a very natural human impulse to unnatural consequences in order to expose how said human desires are simply preposterous. Gone Girl’s central marriage is hardly relatable, but the natural impulses that compose said relationship are very human. By that very same token, Whiplash’s central relationship is very bizarre but the human impulses that govern it, like the search for greatness and the arrogance that anchors said search, are very human.

There are some inherently problematic aspects about it. The fact is that this is a movie that uses Fletcher’s homophobia as a way of characterizing him. Admittedly his virulent homophobia effectively communicates why he’s a terrible person whose point of view shouldn’t be considered. But at the same time, this all comes from the very real fact that these movie’s characters operate under a very hard understanding of masculinity. They try to become men of men. The James Bond or Buddy Riches, as it were, of the world. And is there anything less manly than an homosexual, in this utterly corrosive point of view?  Such an outdated view can only be accompanied by outdated language. It’s an accomplishment on Whiplash’s side, however, that it never tries to paint that hate speech into jokes for the audience to laugh with while condemning the characters we’re witnessing, like so many lesser movies would do.

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None of this touches on the technical aspects of it all. Whenever Whiplash decides to fire all cylinders, Chazelle demonstrates a unique eye for cinematography and editing that would turn him into a legend in another century (and maybe even this one, if my cynicism proves to be unjustified) It all shows during a climax that is so unique and insane that there’s no way any other director/writer could pull it off. Unique and idiosyncratic, it’s the sort of climax that often goes missing from most blockbusters. One that effectively summarizes why the movie we’re watching is unique in a way that will never be repeated. It’s a battle of wills that can’t be properly explained until witnessed. Those 15 minutes alone would turn Whiplash into a movie of the year.

It’s therefore commendable that Whiplash manages to be more than build-up to those 15 minutes. Uniquely structured and utterly unpredictable. The film is also a showcase for the need of strong structure. One that shows a unique vision and a need to establish itself out of the norm. Whiplash’s biggest virtue is that it doesn’t invite speculation based on its chosen genre. It’s clear it’s a mentor-teacher story merged with a Full Metal Jacket-like narrative about institutional and mentor abuse. But it never bows down to either structure, instead forging a unique story about the value of art and the sad desperate chase that has defined so many.

Whiplash is a freefall in the middle of a hurricane with no parachute. Fearless, reckless and dangerous for the unprepared. It unlocks a raw nerve unlike many movies. The desire for perfection and the cost of its pursuit are in constant interrogation through a raw, physical method the likes of which the action greats wish they had under their tow. Whiplash is in fact so much brutal than your typical action movie, it’s hard to believe it’s a movie about jazz drumming. Chazelle’s choices across the movie convey a sharp mind that understands the idea that film is about wizardry. It’s about enthralling people into another realm altogether. One where the highest stakes are so strictly personal, it’s easy to forgive the misgivings.