Whiplash is not about jazz. It’s about blind ambition. Instead of telling the story of a genius finally hitting his mark, it’s the story of a boy who aspires to genius and the hard work he does to try to get there. It’s a celebration of the blood, sweat, and tears that go into perfecting one’s art, but it also fundamentally misunderstands what being a musician – and a jazz drummer – is all about because the film’s perspective is as limited as its protagonist’s.
The suddenly ubiquitous Miles Teller plays Andrew, a wide-eyed 19-year-old jazz drummer studying his craft at the fictitious Schaffer, the country’s most prestigious jazz conservatory. When the film opens, we hear the drums over the titles, and we follow the sound down a long corridor until we reach Andrew, who is deep in concentration, practicing.
He’s in a room by himself, and that’s what so much of the movie is about: a boy practicing the drums by himself, trying to master perfect tempo, and utterly oblivious to the many other requirements of being a good jazz drummer. It’s here that the legendary Professor Fletcher (a terrifying J. K. Simmons), the leader of the top jazz big band at the school and in the country, stumbles on him practicing. Fletcher is quiet but commanding in a black t-shirt and jeans, and he admires Andrew’s dedication. Before long, he invites him to join his band.
To Andrew, everything seems like a giant obstacle to be conquered. The tall buildings of New York City tower over him; there’s a montage of them shot from below. Even asking the girl who works at the movie theatre out on a date feels like a test: in a two-shot, he approaches her directly and timidly, facing off over the concessions counter. He’s constantly working toward something, and he fundamentally doesn’t understand people without that tunnel vision drive, which makes it tough for him to connect with people outside of school. His biggest, and most important, challenge is to make the cut in Fletcher’s band, where he’s currently sitting in as the alternate drummer. And director Damien Chazelle frequently shoots his drum kit from below, so that it, too, towers, almost tauntingly.
Although he aims to inspire, Fletcher’s methods are so abusive and unconventional, that past students won’t be rushing to stand on their chairs reciting poetry in his name. They’re figuring out how to file lawsuits, instead. When auditioning new members for his band, he cuts hopefuls off after a single bar. He gives Andrew words of encouragement, and starts by quietly informing him that he’s at “not quite my tempo,” working with Andrew as he alternately rushes and drags. But out of nowhere, that constructive criticism can turn cruel, as he belts out vitriol, and makes a phrase that was meant to be helpful sound like the scariest declaration possible. He’s closer to a drill sergeant than to Mr. Holland.
Fletcher keeps returning to an old anecdote (that isn’t even accurate) about how a little abuse – a cymbal thrown at his head – is what it took to turn Charlie Parker into Bird. It’s pop psychology at its simplest, but Fletcher decides it’s what he should apply to everyone, because if someone is meant for greatness, nothing will scare him off his path.
There is occasionally method to Fletcher’s madness. To some degree, what he expects of Andrew isn’t unreasonable: to play in tempo, to learn his part by memory, and to be able to figure out how to play a new piece on the spot. These are all things that professional jazz musicians have to do every day: these are the easy things. Even Fletcher knows that it’s a bigger crime to not know you’re out of tempo or out of tune than to make the mistake in the first place. But the way that Fletcher thrives on embarrassing and humiliating Andrew at each step is enough to invalidate any high ground he might have occupied.
Yet Chazelle can’t quite decide whether Fletcher is an unconventional but excellent teacher or a washed up musician taking out his frustrations on his students, or whether these are at odds with each other. There are times when Simmons lets the gentler man out, but it takes only seconds for him to turn into a menace. It’s impressive work. Equally, Andrew seems at once inspired and terrorized by Fletcher, who pushes him to work harder, to practice until his hands bleed, but also chips away at his self-confidence. Teller shows us Andrew’s fear and vulnerability, and he shows us how that drives his resolve.
The film gets scarily close to equating being able to keep perfect tempo with being a great drummer. That’s just the foundation: training your brain to process time differently, more accurately than the rest of us, as only a drummer can. If that’s all it took, there would be a heck of a lot more Tony Williamses and Jack De Johnettes out there. Just as important is how you interact with the other musicians, how you form the backbone of the ensemble, and how you drive the music forward.
Your creative license might be limited in a big band, where the conductor sets the tempo and the style, but if you’re playing in isolation from the rest of the band, as Andrew does, you’re not really playing music. You’re just banging on drums. While Andrew takes great care to tune is drum kit, he never takes advantage of the melodic possibilities of having different notes to work with on the drums. It’s not just that he hasn’t mastered these more difficult tasks; they don’t even register with him as things to do eventually. Even as he practices with dedication, until his hands bleed, he’s missing the bigger picture and the point.
Chazelle was himself a jazz drummer, and that often registers in the way that the characters hear sounds, or the way that we watch Andrew scan through a new piece of music, noticing the time signature, the tempo, and then the rhythms. Every minor sound registers, whether it’s Fletcher’s footsteps on the floor, a clock ticking, or the sound of a hand as it scans through a piece of music. The impeccable sound design allows us to hear the way Andrew does. When Andrew is playing with the band, the drums are the loudest and clearest instruments we hear, because that’s how it would be for Andrew. Chazelle picks a few specific shots to go back to over and over again when filming Andrew at the drums, including a bird’s eye view from directly overhead. Although it gets repetitive, it does have the effect of creating a sense of ritual, which is so essential to the experience of playing music.
Teller and Simmons give stellar performances, making this twisted relationship between teacher and student always compelling, even as the plot strains believability more than once. Yet by focussing on just these two men, Chazelle never contextualizes their relationship, and neglects to explore so much fertile ground in the world of jazz. Does the almost entirely male class affect Fletcher’s teaching methods and misogynistic or homophobic slurs? It’s neither explored nor mentioned, nor is the fact that this is a film about two white guys playing what was historically black music. Chazelle effectively puts us in Andrew’s shoes, feeling his isolation and his excitement, but in so doing, he loses sight of the bigger picture, of what jazz and the culture of the musicians playing it is all about.
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