Confession: when it comes to music I’m kind of a neophyte. I know good music when I hear it and I think my knowledge of popular music is certainly above average, but if you ask me something about a time signature or the number of measures in a line I’m pretty clueless. I tried learning the saxophone when I was in grade school, but I wasn’t very good at it, in part because I completely lacked the discipline to practice every day and in part because I was never quite able to grasp a lot of the necessary concepts. I’ve never really known much of anything about classical music to speak of, and while I do have a working knowledge of jazz history I’ve never quite been able to appreciate it on a very deep level and believe me, I’ve tried. I even took a jazz appreciation course in college and while I was always interested in hearing about the various musicians and their role in the evolution of the form I was never really able to figure out what syncopation was or what the hell differentiates modal music from music rooted in chord progressions. As such, I have a special degree of respect for people who not only understand music but who are driven to master an instrument or compose transcendent tunes, and the new movie Whiplash is about that drive and the type of people who have it.
The film is set in a present day music conservatory in New York which is supposed to be a testing ground for the best of the best. Our protagonist is Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a freshman at the academy who aspires to be the greatest jazz drummer this side of Buddy Rich. Somehow or other Neyman catches the eye of the school’s most prestigious jazz instructor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who directs the academy’s traveling jazz ensemble. Fletcher asks Neyman to join this ensemble, which is a huge honor but also something of an ordeal. It quickly becomes apparent that Fletcher has an instruction style that sits somewhere between Bobby Knight and Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. He’ll shout profanities and homophobic slurs at his pupils when they make mistakes, make personal insults, and make a point of kicking people out of his ensemble for minor slip-ups just to send a message. Despite all of this abuse he still inspires intense loyalty from the people in his ensemble and there’s a lot of pressure to impress him and Neyman is more than willing to give everything he has to do just that.
The central question of the movie is whether Fletcher’s classroom behavior is purely toxic abuse or if there is some justification to be found for it and the movie does seem to argue both sides of that debate. On one hand, the audience is allowed to witness the effects of this extreme tutelage on Neyman. This kid ends up practicing until his hands bleed, brutally eliminates “distractions” from his life, and nearing a nervous breakdown towards the end very nearly gets himself killed because of the pressure being put on him. However, the film also makes it clear that there is a method to Fletcher’s madness. Early on he tells a story about a young Charlie Parker being driven to greatness because he was “gonged off” and humiliated at a gig when he was a young man. Taking this story to heart, Fletcher has been doing this stuff not because he’s mean but because he genuinely believes that this kind of pressure is what’s needed to hone a talented musician to reach his full potential.
The film doesn’t really articulate the argument, but one is left to ponder if this same conduct would be as shocking if it came from a football coach or for that matter from a drill sergeant. I suppose a drill sergeant could be excused for his cruelty simply because his instruction could literally save lives, but what of the football coach? Do we not have the same need for great musicians that we have for great athletes? Then again I’m not sure if Fletcher’s instruction would really give us that either. He isn’t teaching these students how to compose music or improvise lines, in fact there’s not really much creativity at all going on in what they’re doing; they’re just learning to do note-perfect renditions of big band standards. At one point a friend asks Neyman something along the lines of “how can a jazz ensemble compete like that, isn’t the music subjective?” to which Neyman simply says “no” without even the slightest bit of hesitation or self-awareness. Still, there is a debate to be had about whether or not what he’s doing is necessary and you are left to wonder if part of the problem is that this is simply a problem of a younger generation being less able to handle pressure and if perhaps this new era of pampering will give us a generation of well-adjusted mediocrities.
Miles Teller plays the film’s main protagonist, and does a serviceable job potraying a young man desperate to please, but the film’s real scene-stealer is almost certainly J.K. Simmons, who is perfectly cast as this explosive middle aged music instructor. Though Simmons is pushing sixty there’s still an explosive personality that he is able to unleash at will. When this guy is getting intense you can literally see the veins popping out of his head, but there is a softer side to the character and Simmons is able to show that this rage is actually controlled and calculated rather than impulsive. The two actors are also very good at making themselves look like actual musicians; Simmons seems very authentic when he’s conducting the ensemble and Teller certainly looks like he has some actual skill behind the drum set. For that matter, just about all the musical elements of the film feel very realistic. Writer/Director Damien Chazelle has a background in high level music tutelage and certainly seems to have a strong grasp of musical terminology and in the various practice rituals of for ensembles like this. He also picks some very appropriate songs to show off the role of the drummer in these sort of bombastic big band performances and does a good job of making it clear to the audience when Neyman is playing correctly and in showing off the flashes of virtuosity that he displays.
Whiplash debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, which has become something of a testing ground for self-absorbed autobiographical coming of age dramas written and directed by young upper-middle-class white males who maybe took that advice to “write what you know” a little too literally. On paper this movie fits all of the criteria I just dismissively described above, and I do think the film ultimately does struggle to completely break from its general Sundancyness, but I still enjoyed it a hell of a lot most like-minded movies, so what makes this one different? Part of it might just be that Chazelle has something other than just a manic-pixie-dream girl relationship to write about is a big part of it. Neyman’s plight is still ultimately a rather bougie problem to have, but at least it’s something, and he actually provokes the audience to think about some of the things they’re watching rather than merely empathize with them.
The other part of it is probably just a simple matter of solid craftsmanship and quality writing. Chazelle isn’t content to just have his characters talk to each other in front of a handheld camera and doesn’t waste our time with improvisational blathering. I wouldn’t necessarily say he has some kind of master’s eye or anything, but there was some real effort put forward to make this look like a real movie and he did add a number of neat little touches that helped to bring the film to life here and there. The film’s ending, which has a bit of a Purple Rain/8-Mile quality to it, has the whiff of wish-fulfillment to it and perhaps isn’t entirely earned, but it does feel good in the moment because Chazelle has gotten you involved on the character’s journey and render’s his moment of triumph in a very effective way. Whiplash isn’t really a great film in the grand scheme of things, but it’s clearly a cut above other indie debut films and if nothing else it’s got some very good music to listen to… even in the opinion of a jazz neophyte like myself.
***1/2 out of Four