Whiplash (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Travis Maiuro and Cynthia Lucia
Produced by Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook, Michel Litvak, and David Lancaster; directed by Damien Chazelle; written by Damien Chazelle; cinematography by Sharone Meir; edited by Tom Cross; music by Justin Hurwitz; starring Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons. Color. 107 min. A Sony Pictures Classics release, available in Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, www.sonypictures.com. Disc extras include the original Whiplash short film, commentary by Damien Chazelle and J. K. Simmons, a deleted scene, and Timekeepers, in which famous drummers discuss their craft and passion for drumming.
The target audience for Whiplash is, predictably, the under-thirtyish male—a demographic hardly of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Jazz Age. Yet, if only indirectly, this is a film about jazz and music making, and more broadly about the struggle between two fathers (one biological and the other a musical mentor) who exert both genuinely nurturing and potentially damaging power over their underdog son whose choices they seek to sway. To be sure, this is a film about men—girls and women on the side—which is no surprise since the jazz world traditionally has been a field in which men are the key players, composers, and band leaders. But one needs to know very little, if anything, about jazz in order to hook into this movie. The trailer markets Whiplash as a coming of age/psychological thriller mash-up, and the poster covers itself in blurbs of acclaim from critics who saw it on the festival circuit. It advertises itself as an indie film with edge that will appeal to the masses. And it does.
Referencing the Hank Levy jazz piece, the film’s title takes on multiple meanings in its narrative about a drummer attending a New York City jazz conservatory. Only ostensibly about music, Whiplash really is about an underdog who tries to make it to the top—a kind of Rocky who has left the boxing ring for music conservatory training. But those who know music and music education—even those with a relaxed awareness of the “underdog-makes-good genre”—pretty much see right through the film. Jazz drummer Peter Erskine, director of drumset studies at USC’s Thornton School of Music and contributor to over six hundred recordings, sees Whiplash as a fantasy. “It’s Hollywood,” Erskine says. And in favoring such “Hollywood-ness,” the film loses its musical essence. Erskine fears that viewers won’t see “the joy of music making…musicians make music because they love music. None of that is really apparent in the film.” Erskine has a point—the film turns music into something of a horror show, rather than an art form that provides entertainment, pleasure, and inspiration.
But for some particularly driven and passionate musicians, the study and playing of music perhaps does provide neither more nor less than a challenging obsession—with few of the attendant pleasures a concert audience might enjoy. Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), the film’s nineteen-year-old protagonist is on the edge of becoming one of these joyless musical careerists. A first-year jazz drummer at the prestigious, if fictional, Shaffer Conservatory of Music—his dream school—Andrew rarely seems to love or even enjoy playing his music. He is tortured, wishing to see himself as a deserving, perhaps misunderstood, musical genius—an aspect of Andrew’s character that the film sets forth but cannot successfully negotiate. A loner, Andrew is content to lock himself away and slap on his headphones to listen to the sounds of drumming masters like Buddy Rich who inspire him.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, the film finds Andrew desperately seeking the recognition and approval of his authoritarian, militaristic music conductor, Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons). Fletcher usually can be found spouting homophobic epithets at his all-male group of players, addressing them as “ladies,” as if he were Full Metal Jacket’s R. Lee Ermey behind a conductor’s stand. Fletcher’s life motto: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.” He believes that musicians can excel only by never feeling good enough, which sounds like a recipe for intimidation and insecurity rather than one allowing artistic expression and achievement—but it’s his approach with Andrew and his other students, and it’s what pushes Andrew to the brink. Whether or not a film likeThe Red Shoes (1948) is a reference point, Whiplash aspires to address some the same issues the earlier masterpiece does, yet, if admirably on some levels, far less successfully than the film about the possessed, driven ballerina and her obsessive, possessive company master.
The opening shot of Whiplash reveals Andrew, shot in deep focus through a long hallway and doorway, sitting at the drums in a conservatory practice room. Such framing positions him center stage but without the stage; the big stage has yet to appear in this naive drummer’s musical career. As the camera slowly tracks forward, we feel another presence lurking. Enter Fletcher, the catalyst or Andrew’s perceived ticket to success (depending on whether we believe Andrew could ever make it on his on his own to the big time—a point on which the film remains ambiguous). Fletcher is a looming presence given no introduction, but Andrew’s look says it all. He’s not supposed to be in this drum kit room—shit, he’s in trouble now.
As Andrew hastily tries to exit, Fletcher surprises: the master wants to hear the trespassing student continue to play. Andrew swallows his nervousness in one dry, painful gulp and sits back down, gripping his sticks tighter. It’s now or never. Fletcher begins to bark at Andrew to play “faster, faster, faster.” Face contorted in pained concentration, Andrew’s hands fly. He looks up, hoping to see some flicker of approval on the wrinkled face of Fletcher, but he’s vanished. Andrew stops playing abruptly, disappointment washing over him, until Fletcher re-enters the room: “Whoopsie daisy. Forgot my jacket,” he says with the sweetness of a good-natured uncle that hardly conceals his condescension. And with that, he’s gone, for real this time.
Fletcher is mysteriously menacing, stingingly sarcastic, yet charismatic as hell—an almost vampire-like spirit who inspires the desire for approval among his protégés while also draining them. And it’s when Fletcher is at his most frightening that J. K. Simmons really shines. His performance is a tour de force of exploitation and terrorization—and the cracks and crinkles on his face come close to stealing the show. Simmons, primarily known for the fireball newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films and the father-knows-best dad in Juno (2007), carries the film. He’s intensely fearsome but at the same time magnetic and powerfully seductive—not only to his conservatory students but to the film audience, as well. We want more!
And he fools us, as he does Andrew. He waxes tearful in front of his students over his former student, Sean Casey—a trumpeter whom he claims he recognized as “a beautiful player,” while other conservatory faculty wanted to dismiss him for not mastering the basics. Sean, says Fletcher, has just died in an automobile accident. Only later do we learn that Sean was an anxiety-ridden suicide victim. Could this have had anything to do with Fletcher and his forceful methodology? The film (and Andrew, at a later point) remains interestingly ambivalent on this point, although Andrew’s father is convinced.
While it’s undoubtedly Simmons’s movie, Teller also holds court. Previously seen as the goofy but charming love interest in romantic comedy/dramas like The Spectacular Now (2013) and That Awkward Moment (2014), the actor does an about face, playing the role of Andrew as straight and as tortured as he possibly can. He deftly moves from appearing timidly daunted to displaying brash arrogance—all fed by an undercurrent of obsessive ambition. And these are changes his father Jim (Paul Reiser) observes as damaging, thus initiating his battle (if indirect) with Fletcher for Andrew’s soul.
Despite their strength, however, the Simmons and Teller performances can’t fully rescue the film from itself. On the one hand, Whiplash asks us to root for Andrew in underdog fashion as he tests his own mental stability by proving himself worthy of his abuser and becoming a recognized jazz drummer. On the other hand, it poses the question of whether or not his sacrifice is worth it. Andrew isolates himself not only from the people in his life but also from the film viewer, and we ultimately stop caring about his dream, which is defined only in terms of fame or recognition and rarely in terms of musical substance. The film fails to examine the core of Andrew’s quest, never making a distinction between the “faster, faster, faster” technique of a showman like Buddy Rich, for instance, and the more nuanced musicality of a drummer like, say, Joe Morello—the less showy but highly accomplished long-time member of Dave Brubeck’s quartet. These are questions a conservatory student would at least consider and, even to a lay audience, would give texture to Andrew’s character and quest. Andrew’s goal, while recognizable, remains insubstantial through the film’s reluctance to grapple with the question of what it is that constitutes musicianship. Andrew’s quest, therefore, sometimes comes off as merely masochistic—a none-too-bright kid craving another bitch slap from Fletcher.
But then we see Andrew with his father Jim who, while nurturing and concerned about Andrew’s well being, wants nothing more, it seems, than to keep him safe. Their sitting together watching a movie and eating a bowl of popcorn on a cramped couch after Andrew has been ousted from the conservatory presents an empty, depressing alternative of inertia and ennui in the life of our now directionless protagonist. In scene after scene, the film supports Fletcher as the more dynamic (and, perhaps, proper) father figure—in spite of his abuse.
At the same time this physical and psychological abuse—including Fletcher’s slap across Andrew’s face—comes off as implausible and excessive. Had the movie been set a few decades earlier, when it was easier to keep classroom goings-on hush-hush—without the instantaneous exposure of social media ever-present—perhaps Fletcher’s getting away with such abusive practices for so long would make a little more sense. And (spoiler alert on all that follows) he doesn’t entirely get away with it in Whiplash, though the film does appear to exonerate him in the end.
In part autobiographical, Chazelle’s film draws on personal experience. Born in 1985, he studied jazz in the late 1990s and beyond, which sheds some light on the film’s contemporaneous setting. Could an instructor get away with such abuse in the early 2000’s when Chazelle would have been a student? Whiplash problematically seems to answer yes, but, in the 2014 context of the film’s release and setting, it seems even less likely. Fletcher does lose his teaching job, but he remains a vital presence in New York’s jazz performance community, which may be a statement reversing the old cliché about teaching; Whiplash perhaps is suggesting that those who do—those who are practitioners—can’t necessarily teach. They’ve got too many axes of their own to grind.
Despite the film’s autobiographical underpinnings, however, Fletcher appears largely a fictional construct. “As a young drummer in a conservatory-style high school jazz orchestra, the emotion I felt most frequently was…fear,” Chazelle says. “Fear of missing a beat. Fear of losing tempo. Most overwhelmingly, fear of my conductor.” More than anything, Chazelle’s admission suggests his own projection of inner turmoil onto the conductor about whose good opinion he worried. The possibility of such projection on Andrew’s part also is indirectly implied in the film, to its credit. Erskine observes that, “I’ve played under the baton of stern and demanding conductors, as well as the critical ears of some pretty tough bandleaders. I’ve always experienced equal amounts of praise and criticism from the toughest of them. Being a jerk is, ultimately, self-defeating in music education.”
In Whiplash, Fletcher and his methods remain unchallenged until Andrew is pressured to talk by a lawyer working on behalf of the Sean Casey family whom Andrew’s father has contacted. His protective biological father and his admired mentor-father again battle it out in Andrew’s consciousness. Andrew refuses to say anything in his own words to incriminate Fletcher, replying only with, “Just tell me what to say.” And again, the movie presents Andrew as something of a cipher—someone with little will of his own, now engaged in an act arising from feelings of reluctant obligation to his father Jim.
In justifying his approach to performance pedagogy, Fletcher and his students reference Charlie Parker, or rather the legend of Charlie Parker. Whiplash several times relates a story about the beginning of the famed jazz saxophonist’s career. A slip up in his performance led jazz drummer Jo Jones to launch a cymbal full speed at Parker’s head. The near decapitation was to serve as a lesson prompting Parker to work harder. According to the film, the lesson took hold: Charlie Parker becameCharlie Parker…or so the story goes. As Slate.com’s Forrest Wickman points out, the story is duplicitous, contorted to boost the film’s narrative. Wickman notes that the real story of the cymbal has been elaborated in a number of biographies, most notably in Ross Russell’s 1973 book Bird Lives! “Jones didn’t throw the cymbal at Parker’s head,” Wickman writes. “He threw it at the floor around his feet…it was not an episode of physical abuse.” Rather, it was to humiliate Parker into focusing, instead of flying all over the place with his radical improvisatory playing.
Fletcher relates the story in detail, late in the film, after Andrew has been ousted from the conservatory—a duplicitous moment to be sure, for Fletcher is “playing” and deceiving his former student, aware that Andrew is the cause of his own conservatory dismissal. Fletcher aligns himself with Parker’s supposed abuser: “I was there to push people beyond what was expected of them…otherwise we are depriving the next generation of the Louis Armstrongs and the Charlie Parkers.”
Andrew takes the contorted version of the Parker cymbal story to heart and uses it to propel himself further forward in the eyes of his master—both earlier and in the film’s climactic moment when he begins, ever so slightly, to upend and transcend his master. Whiplash never clearly defines its own take on the Parker story and Andrew’s wholesale acceptance of it. Yet, the truth (or untruth) of the story must be qualified in the context of Parker’s heroin addiction and death by overdose—the success and quest for genius having overwhelmed him. Jim is the person who makes this point in the movie, thus upping the ante in his quest to bring his aloof and spitefully arrogant son back to reality. Yet the reality of popcorn and movies, as well as family dinners, is shown as less than a viable alternative—and this seems to be what Jim has to offer. His fatherly love is important, the film seems to suggest, while also implying that, while a necessary foundation, it cannot form the later substance of what children need once they have grown up to make their way in the world.
Reminiscent of the Mark Zuckerberg character in David Fincher’s The Social Network (2010), Andrew breaks up with his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) harshly and condescendingly, in a scene that mirrors the opening of Fincher’s film in which Zuckerberg insults his girlfriend repeatedly before she initiates the break-up. Although a small piece of the narrative, Andrew’s girlfriend—like his father—serves as a point of contrast. She attends a less prestigious college than Andrew’s and is comfortably directionless without an all-consuming professional passion, qualities that Andrew comes to regard as a series of failures.
Perhaps the nineteen-year-old Andrew can be forgiven for his arrogance with Nicole and his acceptance of the Charlie Parker story. In their shared myopia, however, both Andrew and Fletcher use Parker’s death to prove a point: it’s better to die young of an overdose and have people talk about you sixty years later than to die old, personally fulfilled but with no larger public recognition. This is, of course, a romanticized expression of artistic achievement that has circulated for centuries. And both to its credit and detriment, the film refuses to take a stand, allowing the complexities of this debate, on both sides, to circulate. While sitting on the fence about these points—perhaps so as not to alienate either persuasion of viewer—Whiplash leans more in the direction of Fletcher, for better or worse. Abusive as he may be, he offers a new, more stimulating, if unhealthy option, for Andrew.
In most underdog narratives, the climax typically features the protagonist transcending adversity and thereby delivering what the expectant audience craves. Whiplashboth follows and departs from the formula. In one of its earlier dramatic moments, the generic paradigm is writ large. Running late for a performance through a series of mishaps—a competition in which he easily can be replaced—Andrew suffers substantial injury in a car accident. Judging by the damage, he should be out for the count—but not quite. Bruised and badly bleeding in his suit and tie, Andrew summons superhuman strength (hiding perhaps in the glove compartment), and sprints the remaining miles to the concert hall. In this performance that means everything to Fletcher’s artistic ego, Andrew collapses onstage and is told by Fletcher, in no uncertain terms, that he is finished. Implausible narrative moments such as this one—with Fletcher completely oblivious to Andrew’s suffering—threaten to elicit laughter, however unintentionally.
The film’s climactic scene, on the other hand, while perhaps also a bit implausible, is a tour de force of acting, in which Simmons and Teller manage to make emotionally evocative transitions in their feelings and regard for each other, moving from support, to betrayal and revenge, only to arrive back again at something like mutual respect and support—all with only a few spoken words. This scene also takes place on stage when Fletcher gives a defeated, aimless Andrew the performance opportunity of a lifetime at Carnegie Hall. Fletcher is secretly setting Andrew up for failure, of course, in revenge for Andrew’s damaging, though supposedly confidential testimony in the Sean Casey suit. Yet Andrew bests his master and takes over the show, gradually earning Fletcher’s respect (and guidance) through his stellar solo—greatly enhanced by rapid-fire film editing. Jim looks on from afar after Andrew turns away from his comforting embrace to return to the stage in the wake of Fletcher’s publicly humiliating him. What makes this moment compelling are the faces and nuances of the actors who transcend the simple underdog story they have been handed.
Had the narrative allowed Andrew consistently and genuinely to earn our sympathy, we might more easily embrace Whiplash, which has earned wide critical acclaim. But beyond a few instances and without a clear sense of what exactly Andrew himself is pursuing in a larger musical context, the film largely falls flat. And without looking beyond his abusive methodology to the core of what Fletcher ultimately is attempting to teach or achieve musically (other than the idea that “good job” isn’t good enough), Whiplash fails to transcend its more banal underdog formula. At his most sympathetic, Fletcher explains himself to Andrew, in what we discover is a most duplicitous moment. So what, if anything, as a mentor, does he stand for? Despite its outstanding performances, the film fails to live up to its own potential in engaging the audience in far more meaningful ways. For a film that places so much attention on Charlie Parker, a man known for taking risks in his art, Whiplash plays it all too regrettably safe.
Travis Maiuro is a screenwriting MFA candidate at the University of Texas at Austin.
Cynthia Lucia, professor of English and director of the film and media studies progam at Rider University, is the author of Framing Female Lawyers: Women on Trial in Film and co-editor of The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film.
Copyright © 2015 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 2