Blood, Sweat, Tears, WhiplashPosted: October 11, 2014
One great scene in the wall-to-wall greatness of Whiplash shows Andrew (Miles Teller) having dinner with his dad and extended family. The conversational round robin leads to Andrew’s musical career being dismissed and disrespected in favor of his cousins’ football and Model UN accomplishments. It’s a great and infuriating scene- especially resonant for anyone who aspires to a career as an artist- and a few scenes later, when Andrew is playing the drums so hard it leaves his hands and sticks slick with blood, it serves as an impactful emphasis of how unfounded such disrespect is. This is the core of Whiplash: it is a paean to the drive and commitment of the true artists, and what it truly demands of a person to be one.
Whiplash chronicles the runaway freight train of conflict between Andrew and his uncompromising band leader, Fletcher (JK Simmons) as Andrew serves as drummer for Fletcher’s studio band. There are other characters and a few outlying moments (like the aforementioned one with Andrew’s family) but this one conflict comprises about 90% of the film. Everything and everyone else is just window dressing for that battle, which is a good thing too, because too much time spent on any other aspect of the narrative would have been a disappointment in comparison to this intense drama. It’s David vs Goliath played out over a drum kit, and the major elements so seamlessly merge together that it’s impossible to look away.
Andrew is a perfect embodiment not just of young artists, but of young ambition in general. Everything in his life is secondary to his life goal, which in this case is to be one of the best drummers in the world. While on the one hand his commitment to his art is inspiring (while also bordering on psychotic, at least in the eyes of anyone who doesn’t have the same sort of drive in them) it also leaves Andrew with a prickly, holier-than-thou attitude, one that leaves him lonely and isolated as a result. There’s a brief relationship arc in the movie with a girl named Nicole, but it is clear from the get-go that this arc is never meant to provide real conflict or friction. It only illustrates how disposable everything in Andrew’s life is compared to his music. In Andrew, we are presented with the question of how important our calling is to us, and what we are willing to put aside or ignore in pursuit of that calling (and whether all of those sacrifices are really necessary at all). Miles Teller is perfectly cast for this, with his personality working both towards the earnestness of a young man full of dreams and the anger of an artist struggling to achieve his potential.
Meanwhile Fletcher is a musical Machiavelli, an arduous taskmaster who believes in getting the absolute most out of every artist in his charge, and ensuring that his chosen art is not spared any moment of potential brilliance. Fletcher ultimately plays as something of an enigma, not because his goals or purpose is unclear (quite the opposite) but because throughout the film it is hard to tell whether he is ever having an honest emotional moment outside of anger. The one moment I was sure of is near the end of the film, where Andrew stumbles across Fletcher performing at a jazz club, and we see this demagogue of a bandleader playing piano. The quiet nature of the song, and the simple, calm look of enjoyment on Fletcher’s face, show a different side of the man, who is just losing himself in the music he’s performing. It seems to suggest that, while he demands more and more from his students, maybe he’s come to terms with his own level of talent and is able to enjoy his own work in a way his students probably can’t. Beyond that nuance, Fletcher is also a question personified: what is worth doing to get the most out of a student? If you see greatness in someone, should you coddle them and tell them they’re good, and risk letting them become content with where they already are? Or do you keep pushing them and riding them and expecting more of them, at the risk of breaking them altogether (and maybe costing the world something good, if not outright great)? JK Simmons kills this role, filling this outward sound and fury with an inner certainty and purpose, and enough charisma to make it easy to see why any aspiring musician would want to follow his lead.
Music unsurprisingly plays a huge role in Whiplash (right down to the title, which is named for one of the tracks in the film), and thankfully it is handled beautifully here. Writer/director Damien Chazelle, DP Sharone Meir and editor Tom Cross piece together the musical sequences incredibly well, with each and every shot and cut integrated with the music; it emphasizes the music itself, and helps really capture the energy of the performance. And outside of the musical performances, the score by Justin Hurwitz mixes in beautifully, seguing seamlessly from an energetic jazz sound to a Reznor/Ross-esque drone with ease, changes which again are tied to the shot and edit of each moment. Furthermore, in addition to the energetic depiction of the performances, Chazelle is able to structure many of them (particularly the finale) as an externalization of Andrew’s battle with Fletcher, which adds another level of engagement to them. Indeed, the final performance (which includes one uninterrupted 10-minute piece of music) is among the most thrilling things I’ve seen at the movies this year. Or to put it another way: the first time the studio band performs “Whiplash” in the film, I got goosebumps, both from the music and the shooting of it. When they play it again near the end, I got goosebumps again, and when I began listening to it while writing this post, I got goosebumps AGAIN, because that is how effective the use and depiction of music in this film is.
Misdirections are another major part of the script. While the overall direction of the film is very straightforward, there are numerous little moments throughout the film that keep the audience on their toes and add another level of tension onto the elemental conflict of the story. One of the best scenes in the film is Andrew’s first practice with Fletcher’s studio band, which encapsulates this aspect of the film especially well (and all of the other aspects too, actually). The scene opens with Andrew struggling to tune the drums for the lead drummer before practice, and Fletcher subsequently getting furious that one of the players is out of tune. You might think you know how the scene unfolds, but it actually takes a couple of twists at the end that bring added life to the proceedings. Many scenes unfold this way, and while it might not reshape the narrative at all it still helps to emphasize the unpredictability of Fletcher’s methods.
Recently I had a brief moment of hope that I would have a professional opportunity as a critic (ie, as a writer) which ended up not working out, and unsurprisingly I was very disappointed. Such a disappointment, while not really feeling like a referendum on my skills as a writer, can also very easily be a deflating moment for anyone. But while I might not have the level of insane commitment that Andrew embodies and that Fletcher demands, their struggles in the name of their art nevertheless remind me that letting up is never the answer. I have people in my life that believe in me and support me, and I will always be grateful for that; and my artwork will never be important enough to take me away from those people the way that it eventually is for Andrew. But I know that I will not stop being a writer, whether I get paid for it, whether anyone reads it or not, because that is what I am here in this world to do, just as surely as Andrew is on this world to play the drums. This is the real message of Whiplash: what you can and will sacrifice for your art is up to you, but the one thing you should never sacrifice is the art itself. It’s an important lesson for any artist, aspiring or otherwise, and one that I really needed to hear today. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go type until my fingers bleed… as far as sacrifices go, that’s an easy one to make.