* (1 star)
wd – Damien Chazelle
ph – Sharone Meir
pd – Melanie Jones
m – Justin Hurwitz
ed – Tom Cross
cos – Lisa Norcia
p – Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook, David Lancaster, Michal Litvak
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
Whiplash is the persistent, rabid story of a music student who studies jazz and wants to be a virtuoso, fastened to a film that doesn’t want to be about either.
I feel that the film could get away with misunderstanding the former, but the fact that it misunderstands the latter is what is so egregious. Speaking as someone who spent years studying under intense situations an aesthetic craft – in my case, the art of acting – I have seen the detrimental effects that blinding artists into athletes has, not only on the artist, but also on the culture.
This leads to me to raise the immortal argument that even as I write it feels already like weak tea to me: Does the film endorse it’s characters? The answer: No. That is not the problem. The problem is that director Damien Chazelle is so afraid of falling specifically into that trap, he has crippled his film with such predictability that his own trap becomes inescapable.
Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, who lives with his father and studies at the Shaffer Conservatorium of Music (a made-up, Julliard type institution) in New York. In an admittedly dynamic opening scene, he is observed practicing on his drum kit by Terence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons, a merciless teacher who’s studio band has won many prizes and is considered the best student-level orchestra in the country.
Fletcher treats his students like drums themselves, believing that an arduous environment and non-stop castigation and humiliation will result in the next Charlie Parker. He even stimulates Andrew with a story about the young Parker playing for Jo Jones who, upon hearing a mistake, hurled a cymbal at Parker’s head, almost decapitating him. For the record, this is an apocryphal story that only serves to mislead Whiplash’s audience. Perhaps Mr Chazelle didn’t know this (which is bad) or perhaps he did (which is worse).
The moment Andrew and Fletcher are introduced, their drama becomes mind-numbingly obvious. Fletcher dangles the opportunity to play first chair in front of Andrew who responds by dissenting into decorative madness. Mr Chazelle and Mr Teller present us with Raging Bull-like sequences of Andrew practicing until his hands are literally bleeding. Andrew’s loses the ability to have human relationships, which worries his father, played by Paul Reiser. And this all culminates in an ecstatic final musical sequence that, for me, was finally where the movie started to get interesting. Not until then do the pivotal decisions that people in this situation would most likely make have any effect within the film.
So many plot machinations ring false: A music folder that mysteriously goes missing, a dinner table argument with zero ramifications, a girlfriend character (played by Melissa Benoist) with virtually no personage – that final phone call is shockingly implausible – and a car crash scene so ridiculous it almost annuls the film.
J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller are totally believable as the tiger and his prey, but the film does not support them. So overt are the characters’ positions to one another and so undeniable is their arc that neither performance is allowed to augment. Mr Simmons still has more charisma in one gesture than most actors could ever muster and Mr Teller – who apparently started drumming in his youth – concretizes the drumming so assuredly.
In the book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell says that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Many art teachers (of all ranges) have interpreted this as an explanation for artistic genius. This, with all due respect, is bullshit.
True virtuosity comes from arriving at one with oneself; ascertain what the art is about and what the artist is about to create something wholly new that defies connoisseurship. Geniuses of their art, like Pablo Picasso, Stanley Kubrick or Jerome Robbins, were geniuses because they would still be exactly who they were even in a world that was devoid of praise and/or blame. To reduce their art merely as a representation of a mammoth acquaintance with their craft is not only impertinent but fallacious.
What’s most frustrating of all is that what Mr Chazelle agitates at here, he enunciated in his debut feature Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009), an energetic, low-budget musical shot in grainy black-and-white that features a lush score by a 90-piece orchestra (the score of both films is composed by Justin Hurwitz). Whiplash was honored with both the Dramatic and Audience awards at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. It seems that Mr Chazelle has tried to make a film about vigor and percussive potency. At that, he prevails. But at the expense of a message that is nothing short of venomous to the very art form he belongs to.