Whenever I spot a fictitious arts school in the premise of a movie I am instantly reminded of those atrocious dance movies (set to the most recycled pop 101 soundtrack) generated on a yearly basis by the ‘cinematic crap-machine’ of money-mongering filmmakers and if we’re unlucky, which is the case more often than not, I have one dreadful word for you – FRANCHISES. If you are a vicarious consumer of such look-at-me-I-started-from-the-street movies which have less to do with the idea of hard work and ‘practice makes perfect’ than the suggestion that one is most likely to find their soul mate in a fellow handsome dance partner together with whom they are fated to rebel against and consequently take down an institution functioning along the lines of conservatism and mild fascism, turn away now. Or better yet, proceed for the sake of some quality cinematic artistic aesthetic because Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is none of that. Not even remotely.
Nineteen year-old Andrew Neyman is installed as a freshman in the reputable fictitious Shaffer Conservatory of Music. A drum major, he is discovered in the opening scene by the fearsome and intimidatingly venerable conductor, Terrence Fletcher, recruiting for his elite studio band the membership of which is highly coveted by aspiring musicians of the academy. It is from here on out that Fletcher makes it his mission to prise out every modicum of potential out of his prodigious student into the spotlight, dismissive of limitations and transcending ethical constraints by far in his treatment of the band. Thusly, prepare yourself to board a ship where Terrence Fletcher redefines the expression ‘swear like a sailor’, a prominent example (and the longest, most creative insult I’ve ever heard) being Fletcher’s exhortation of the band members prior a competition – “I won’t have my reputation…tarnished by a bunch of fucking limp-dick, sour-note, flatter than their girlfriends, flexible tempo dipshits!” Fun, eh?
Miles Teller, previously seen in acclaimed independent features like The Rabbit Hole and The Spectacular Now, is awe-inspiring as Andrew Neyman, wielding drumsticks like weapons in the polished hardwood studio of a battlefield, or the concrete confines of his apartment, walls bare except a monochrome of Buddy Rich. On the surface, he is our quintessential hero epitomizing dedication and discipline set against obstructive forces and to add a punch to it, consigned to a thinly disguised assessment of an underachiever at the family dinner table all of which he is scripted to persevere. But, on a closer look Andrew’s character is inherently and deeply flawed. While the film is transparent enough in relating the dangers of unchecked exertion of talent, in addition to Fletcher’s coercive methods it is Andrew’s lofty ambition bordering on obsession that is both enthralling and at the same time disturbing. Miles Teller is impressive in conveying this potentially fatal anomaly in scenes that interlude brutal infliction of band practice. His face, shy and handsome, has a severity to it which suggests much more than a hard day’s work.
However, the most outstanding presence in the film is perhaps the loudest, louder than the thumping of drums and the clashing of cymbals till it all collapses into discord and cacophony of forceful screaming and occasional hurling of furniture and drum assortments. Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, J.K. Simmons’ performance as the malignant and verbally vicious Terrence Fletcher is phenomenal and terrifying. Granted that he berates, humiliates and dispenses physical abuse (Yes, he is all too well-schooled in the art of emotional torture.), Chazelle, in an interview with The Dissolve, complains, “He’s so misunderstood!” While the film could have easily breached the territory of a vengeful narrative between a villainous instructor and a bullied student, Whiplash straddles the line and takes a step back in its final moments allowing the audience if it is willing to give this walking nightmare another chance. Fletcher, in the immediate aftermath of a personal strife with Andrew, builds him up in his drum solo at the prestigious Lincoln Center, his skilful fingers guiding every note, every crescendo and we see a man who values above all else artistic excellence and greatness the appreciation of which should not be compromised at the cost of the most unshakeable human fault of vengeful satisfaction.
While the indie drama has been hailed by critics and has garnered several nominations including nods from the Academy and the Golden Globes, it has left jazz fans disappointed that have dubbed the music mediocre and has received criticism for containing factual errors in its plotline such as the reference to the incident where drummer Jo Jones throws a cymbal at a young Charlie Parker’s head for losing the beat of the composition. (Jo Jones actually threw a cymbal at Parker’s feet which does not constitute as an act of physical abuse and has been misrepresented to suit the character motivations and themes of the film.)
However, essentially, Whiplash is not about music, or specifically about jazz. It is not a celebration. It is all guts and glory. It is a genre piece, a contemporary of marvellously stunning sports features like Million Dollar Baby and The Fighter. It is an intensifying, energetic, maniacal, propelling narrative of guts and glory.