Directed by Damien Chazelle
Sony Pictures Classics
is director Damien Chazelle's portrait of an aspiring jazz drummer who falls prey to an overbearing conservatory teacher. Although the film has attracted well-earned praise for its acting and editing, this review sets technical flourish aside and approaches Whiplash
not as a film, per se, but as a failed musical exercisea didactic riff, if you will, on the power of "greatness" and the suffering born of its realization.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is the 19-year-old protagonist, whose single stroke roll opens the film's fade from black. Andrew is introduced alone, practicing under cover of night in a room lit like a stage, foreshadowing the atmospheric conditions of his story's end. Into that hermetic space walks Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), known within and without the school as a teacher-performer of intense repute. Indeed, reputation inspires Fletcher to a height of authoritarian ecstasy that he, at first, passively lays on Andrew in a crushing deflation of promise:
This sequence establishes a feeling of rudiment that assaults almost every scene to follow as Andrew's dreams suddenly become barriers, his drumsticks like antennae tentatively feeling their way through a prestigious institutional universe, where jazz is taught by way of repetition, self-discipline, and continual reappraisal of a common core. Despite shaky beginnings, Fletcher keeps an ear on Andrew, lingering as a ghostly presence in his peripherywhether as a shadow in a frosted glass door or as target of Andrew's snuck glances. Much to Andrew's surprise and pleasure, Fletcher recruits him for a senior band session, taking on the film's eponymous Hank Levy
tune with a highly regimented group of musicians who know what to expect from their despotic pedagogue.
Fletcher fancies himself a catalyst of development, insofar as one must excel to fit his mold of expectation. Much of that expectation burns an all-seeing eye into the palm of his conducting hand. A closed fist means stillness, a chance to self-assess and regroup in the heat of embarrassment. It is his deepest threat, a paralyzing card he lays on the table without compunction, culled from the stacked deck of his darkest mind:
From this we can surmise that Fletcher has relatively little interest in the music. Neither does the film. For while both he and the camera would seem to crave an artistry so incendiary that the audience burns to experience it, what both actually want is the awesome silence captured in the knot of his fist. We may see this in the personable way Fletcher approaches Andrew in the hallway between rehearsals, when in fact he is storing personal information about the young man's broken family for later strategic deployment. In this way, he acts the part of the jazz tourist, amassing a bank of effective licks heard elsewhere that he gleefully waits to unleash. He is, in this respect, a confrontational improviser circumscribed by his own design, one who's looking for a performer but not a musician. Fletcher's penchant for indignation feeds Andrew's drive to succeed to the point of marring the latter's interpersonal relationships and ambitions of rising above and beyond what anyone (family included) expects of him. And this is where the film-as-musical-object begins to disintegrate. Whiplash
wasn't made for musicians or their admirers, but filmgoers seeking visual gratification. On that note, anyone who thinks that jazz is taught and produced only through big band charts in an environment utterly lacking in extracurricular interaction and study, who swallows whole the notion that Buddy Rich
is the be-all and end-all of drumming, might very well find the film instructive. But this comes at the expense of any meaningful rumination on the necessarily multifaceted geometry of musicianship. Instead, it favors reception over production. As if to belabor this point, time and again Fletcher returns to a distorted anecdote that finds Jo Jones nearly decapitating Charlie Parker
with a hurled cymbal during a legendary jam session. As Fletcher would have it, this incident prompted Parker to practice harder than ever, thus becoming the Bird we know and love. In reality, Jones merely lobbed a cymbal at Parker's feet in a playful gesture of derision. That said, the credibility of Fletcher's retelling is secondary to his motivations for telling it. The point is that he believes
his version so adamantly that he uses it to badger his studentsto say nothing of himselfinto thinking that his methods are sound.