Once a year there seems to be an important prestige film that totally slips under my radar until mid-to-late November. I think last year it was Philomena, and I never ended up seeing that anyway. I got my act together in a big way this year, however, and managed to see it the same week as the initial discovery. I had to drive three hours to do it, but fortunately I was headed in that direction already. But let’s just pretend that I wasn’t, and that my actions reflect my complete devotion to the craft of film criticism. It’s commitment like that separate the great from the good.
The Plot: An extremely talented young jazz drummer named Andrew (Miles Teller) begins his first year at the premier music conservatory in the nation, which is definitely not Berklee and has no affiliation with or connection to Berklee at all. He soon learns exactly what it will take to achieve the greatness he craves when he meets the school’s top jazz conductor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a ruthless son-of-a-bitch with unrealistic demands. At least, they seem unrealistic at first, until Andrew starts to understand exactly what “perfection” entails.
We could go in a lot of different directions with this premise. I feel like most competitive music movies would follow an ambitious young man who learns something important about himself on the road to winning the girl and getting a pat on the back from his ornery but wise mentor. Some others would take the opportunity to heavily criticize the inhumanity of crazy music schools. I guess in many ways music movies and sports movies are very similar. You either get an underdog success story or a powerful social critique. Whiplash is both and neither. It takes a familiar premise and explores it in new and refreshing ways, dipping its toes into various tropes and clichés without subscribing to or adopting any of them fully. Writer/director Damien Chazelle instead delves very deeply into these two characters, attempting to discern what exactly motivates them.
People have commented a lot on the performances in this film, especially that from J.K. Simmons. Sure enough, he deserves the praise, and the probable Oscar nomination. He spends much of the film shouting derogatory and otherwise brutal remarks at a bunch of college students, and some of what he says is so pointed and cruel that the viewer can’t help but hate him for it. That kind of figure could so easily wind up a one-dimensional, Academy Award-winning performance for Best Shouting, but Simmons manages to bring something more to role. I’m sure that part of it is that he’s acting against type. I mean… if this were someone like Kevin Spacey or Jack Nicholson I don’t think any of us would be as impressed, because they only play assholes. As a character actor, though, Simmons clearly approached this highly egotistical role without any of his own egotism. There’s something strangely genuine about his performance that truly separates (and elevates) his role from (and above) the standard archetype. I guess in that respect he sort of reminds me of Michael Fassbender’s brilliant turn redefining the word “awful” in last year’s 12 Years a Slave. Sometimes good people can do amazing things with bad characters.
Miles Teller’s performance is simply stunning. If we’re being honest, I didn’t really pay close attention to his acting, because that was secondary to his drumming, as it should be for this film. You could really tell this story to the same effect with any instrument, but the reason drumming works so well is because of how physically demanding it is. To practice rapid-fire jazz drumming for hours at a time without stopping involves literal blood, sweat, and tears. Teller went all in. I read somewhere that none of the sweat was faked and some of the blood wasn’t either. The blisters he develops on his hands are his own, not products of makeup. Devotion like that is commendable and impressive from an actor, and could not have been more appropriately placed than in this film.
The other thing that’s really excellent about Whiplash is the pacing. Whoever edited this movie, and twenty seconds on IMDb tells me it’s someone named Tom Cross, did a fantastic job with the pacing, building off musical cues, tempo, beats, time signatures, and other technical jargon. At times I felt that the film, like the jazz in it, felt longer than it actually was, but, unlike the jazz, it never meandered tunelessly so the players could jerk off in front of the audience (sorry, that was crude; I just have opinions about jazz). Instead, every scene fits in perfectly within the larger narrative and Chazelle’s style remains deliberate. To place this in perspective, this is a film about egotistical jazz musicians striving to achieve unparalleled greatness, directed and written by a Harvard graduate, and presented in an entirely straight, humble, remarkably non-self-aggrandizing fashion. That’s enough to be thankful for right there.
To return to my earlier point concerning the film’s focus and message, Whiplash succeeds because all the people making it are talented, determined, and emotionally invested. They care about their movie, as well they should. The characters in Whiplash reflect a similar motive. Andrew and Fletcher both love jazz, and more specifically they love the talented people who have produced it over the years, the “greats.” They love it so much, they want more. They want it to stay around, to always be new and fresh, and that means that they want more greats. Whiplash, by my reading, reflects not only the cost of perfection, but also the cost of a fanatical idolatry of it. Everyone can relate to this on some level; everyone has that one idea that appeals to them so monumentally that there’s little they wouldn’t do for it. Whiplash is about music, but its message applies broadly, it can cover anything, and it warns me against ardently pursuing my dream of a strawberry jam fondue fountain. Truly, that would be too much power for one man.