Ironically, Whiplash is a film that makes me want to react to it the way that J.K. Simmons’ Terrence Fletcher reacts to Miles Teller’s Andrew Neiman. But I realize that would actually make as much a cartoon as Fletcher kind of is and I’d rather just ground myself and take it slow.
Whiplash is not a terrible movie. It’s a great movie. I wouldn’t call it exactly perfect, but in a wide release weekend where nearly every movie that I saw was a thriller that was much anticipated – Nightcrawler, Birdman, Interstellar among them – Whiplash is the more tense of the films in that killer’s row.
Which is definitely not on account of its script, but let’s dig into it briefly. Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a freshman drumming student at the pretigious Shaffers Music Conservatory (the movie does not specify where it takes place and even though it feels like it really wants to take place in Los Angeles, the appearance of the Orpheum and the Palace Theater betray the shooting location as Los Angeles) who is struggling to be the best. He’s already on the way to dedicating his life completely to focus on the drums – inspired by the greats of jazz drumming (which I can as a drummer insist is the best kind of drumming) such as Don Ellis and Buddy Rich – when Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the big man on the campus who teaches and runs Studio Band, keeps catching his eye and eventually is impressed enough by Neiman to allow him into said class as an alternate drummer. However, for his time as an alternate, Neiman gets one chance at the drums before being pushed back to just turning the page of charts for the primary drummer.
Until after an incident that occurs where the primary drummer loses his drumming charts and claims he can’t play without those charts, leading Andrew to step up taking his place (having memorized all the charts), and becoming the primary drummer for Fletcher’s band. It seems as though his passion is going good until Fletcher gets slowly more and more upset about the tempo Neiman is using…
… to the point of throwing a chair at Neiman’s head without warning and to begin berating Neiman in front of the class in a verbal haze reminiscent of R. Lee Ermey’s savagery in Full Metal Jacket and Alec Baldwin’s command in Glengarry Glen Ross, but all the way hellish for a new kid in a new class.
Now, of course, we get this incident hinted at very early on, as Fletcher tries to bring Neiman at ease by recounting a moment in jazz legend Charlie Parker’s career of Joe Jones throwing a cymbal at his head to shape Bird up after having flubbed up a show. And that’s where the beginning of my nitpicks begin.
I am a jazz enthusiast and I am a drummer. This movie was pretty much perfect bait for me as it caters to two of my biggest interests in this wild world. But it also opened itself up to some nitpicks as I tried to focus in on the content of the film.
Lots of films and television will get historical facts wrong, they just do that for some reason. But if you know enough about jazz, you know that the Jones/Bird incident involved Jones throwing the cymbal to Bird’s feet, not his head. It was an act strictly of public shaming, not a malicious act of physical abuse. But it’s very clear why Whiplash takes liberties with this fact and so the nitpick is only something nagging at my head as one of several things that proves the movie is not so much for jazz fans as it is just for fans of character studies and thrillers.
See, after this initial incident, the whole movie is set to follow Neiman as he tries to get a complete bead on Fletcher as a person with the audience, as Simmons brilliantly places Fletcher somewhere in between a sadistic abuser of power and a man who just is very very very serious about making all of his students succeed and to dig out the genius possibly lying within any of his band members. Simmons is a cruel and volatile source of power for the complete first act of the film, commanding every scene he is in, even into the second act where we’re a bit more conditioned to Fletcher’s attitude and aren’t entirely as shocked as we were the first time around. This isn’t some snapping J. Jonah Jameson wit, this is “if I don’t make you cry, I’ve failed” roasting on a spike that Simmons delivers like a second language in the film. The sort of stuff that would probably earn the worst ratemyteacher score in history.
But the movie is also set to follow the growing sociopathy of Neiman himself, a kid who already neglects social life for the sake of becoming a completely rounded musician. When it comes to the being put under the grill of Fletcher’s instructing practices though, Neiman completely demolishes all possibilities of a life beyond music and begins to twist his own arm just as much as Fletcher does. I wasn’t entirely won over by Miles Teller with the work I had seen him in before, but the self-flagellation we witness Teller put himself through, the complete and utter coldness Teller displays to anything imperative to life that doesn’t regard his practice, the torturous restraint of his cries every time something holds him back from being the greatest, the beads of sweat and drops of blood that shed from his head and hands, but most of all, the fact that Teller is able to carry this performance by still inhabiting a flesh-and-blood human being makes Teller more the star of this film than the already-acclaimed Simmons. It’s clear that Neiman doesn’t want to take this path he has chosen, but that he feels he has to… and yet slowly but surely it seems every step he takes brings him two more steps back in his pursuit to be the next great jazz artist.
The fact that we have two brilliant leading performances in this one movie is most of all what sells a movie with a script by Damien Chazelle that is, frankly, filled with contrivances. The first act of the film leading to Andrew’s rise as a drummer under Fletcher’s tutelage is very organic, but once things start heating up, it’s clear the film is just trying to throw in as much as it can to keep Fletcher seem as off the wall as they can make him. In fact, Fletcher himself balances the tightrope between becoming a complete cartoon (such as him disregarding or neglecting to even acknowledge an incident for Neiman that shows on his appearance) and of being just a man for whom Neiman’s perceptions mean everything.
In the meantime, once the script takes itself back to a zone of normalcy, it’s also slowed down significantly and it’s more heavy lifting from the audience to get involved with the story. But that’s just fine because, like I said, Teller and Simmons’ performances anchor the emotional drama.
There’s also some pretty solid carry of intensity from Chazelle’s direction – utilizing Sharone Meir’s cinematography to send a mixed message of tightened angles on the stressed face of Neiman and the discomforting presence of Fletcher (which takes a brilliant turn in the final minute of the film) and the claustrophobic atmosphere of the rooms in which Neiman pounds his hands to a pound, at the same time bathing the chilliness of the practice rooms with muted greens to show off how much more of a machine Neiman is making himself and then shimmering the stages and the Studio Band class with complete glimmering gold to make it seem like magic is just waiting to happen from the instruments – only more ironic when Fletcher uses that atmosphere to completely destroy his students.
And then there’s also some really amazing sound editing, which most would already associate with films focused on music if they want to treat their subject with half that kind of respect, but it’s more than that. The snare is brought up to 11, making it resemble more of a gunshot next to the ears of the audience than any really harmonious instrument, and almost every time Neiman tortures himself there’s a constant ringing to soundtrack the damage he’s doing to himself to gain true jazz genius. And there’s just the sweeping landscape building of a musical finale, aided by the best crackle, snap-pop editing we see that makes the entire performance seem like a damned gunfight more than anything. It’s easily my favorite moment of the whole film and it has more tension within itself than the rest of the already very intense film.
Like I say, I do have my nitpicks, like the fact that sometimes the visuals do not fully synchronize with the sound when there is drumming going on, the jazz discrepancies, and especially the inconsistencies in tone, but the movie’s full-throttle dedication to its characters and making them feel trapped trying to find that one key to what makes great music the best music in separate ways makes Whiplash a hell of a debut and well worth watching by anyone, jazz enthusiast or not.