Thursday, April 30, 2015

Whiplash Review: Love (of music) Is a Battlefield

A lot of art comes from a place of troubled, or outright wounded, emotions. Sometimes, strong feelings are the motivation for artistic expression, while at other times, an artist will develop emotions connected to the idea, image or sound that's stuck in their head. Some artists do work differently, it’s true, but passion is intimately tied to art, and Whiplash shows - regardless of the wonderful results - just how un-beautiful those emotions can be, and how ugly the people who make art can behave.

That Whiplash makes this aspect so prominent is one of the most admirable things about it. None of the musicians here are giving folks who try to improve the lives around them while pursuing their own personal goals. Neither the distant lead, Andrew (Miles Teller), nor his gruff co-star, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), are warm and kind people; one is just an incalculably worse person. All these roles love music as closely as other people love their families.

What keeps these individuals from being more lovable? Well, all of the artists here are in competition – 19 year-old Andrew is in his first year at Manhattan’s prestigious Shaffer Conservatory; Fletcher is a long-standing teacher there, and his jazz bands always win competitions. At the very start of the movie, Fletcher walks into Andrew’s practice and curtly orders him to play. From that moment on, Andrew operates under extreme stakes – Terrence Fletcher’s reputation for producing successful musicians is matched only by his rep as a hard-ass.

The (unstated) real problem here is that all of the emotions that can push people toward art - joy, loneliness, isolation, grief, pride, rage, a need for validation – are especially volatile when mixed with a competitive environment. As Andrew tries to capitalize on the opportunity to join Fletcher’s band, he finds himself on the sort of emotional rollercoaster that can become harmful quickly. Just the effort to meet a particular pace leaves the kid’s hands bloody; and all he does is wrap them up and dip them into ice water.

Fletcher, meanwhile, represents a nearly-maniacal force of nature. All the passion of a sports coach who has to be dragged off the field gushes right out of a man who’s into syncopation and mellow baselines. Simmons has always been a pleasure to watch, but this movie creates a situation where all of his craft is on display, and it’s mesmerizing. Whether it’s subtle body language, overt actions, or the modulation of his voice, Fletcher truly feels like a person – the kind we’ve all met at one point or another, and have felt a great swell of relief when they’re out of our lives.

The layering to the characters is one of the real strengths of Damien Chazelle's movie. Andrew receives some audience sympathy because he’s just a kid and his life is nowhere near awesome: he lives in a tiny apartment, his mediocre social skills help assure that he’s lonely, and he’s largely neglected by anyone aside from his single father. For all that, Andrew is (at least) a bit of a d--k. Some of the things he does seem to come more from a place of jealousy, pettiness, or spite than from more relatable or nobler sentiments like brutal honesty, or fear of failure.

Yet, at the same time, we get to see this side of Andrew that’s neither “good” nor “bad”: someone so dedicated to music that other things seem “low” to him; someone who doesn’t value friendship, only the reliability of his colleagues in a performance; someone who wants to be the best and is coldly willing to prioritize everything and everyone else below that goal. And, although Fletcher is not an ambiguous figure like Andrew is, the teacher’s essence also has a bit of depth – his hubris and ruthless pursuit of perfection can give way on occasion to convey genuine caring and loss (only for what he cares about, of course). And this monolithic figure can shoot the breeze just like a normal person...

On the visual front, Whiplash is often a studiously-shabby movie. The early nighttime shots of New York City look like a student film, or perhaps a low-budget indie work: the street lights create a glare that the cinematographer doesn’t adjust for, and there’s a grain to the image that suggests an imperfect exposure. I suppose some people might feel that it’s too affected, but I found that it had the effect of making me remember my own college days, and even how I’d feel when I sat down to watch a student or indie film.

The fact that this look was intentional becomes obvious later on. The independent cinema tricks do continue for a while, certainly... The pic's not afraid to show a quick shot of a floorboard while noise goes on in the background, or to show an orchestra where someone’s head is cut off or a piano isn’t entirely in frame, and the camera does a bit of that indie “wandering” thing.

And yet, the very last scene and the big sequence at the end of the middle section show cinematography worthy of a summertime blockbuster. It’s not just the crispness of the shot or the perfection of the lighting – the timing to the camera work is just stupendous. One moment with a car looked impressive and jarring in a way achieved in few versions of the same scene. It’s also interesting to observe that for all the extraneous visual details, the attendees at these competitions and performances are often rendered perfectly-invisible (because they don’t matter).

In fact, it’s that same sense of timing to the camera that first had me smiling here. Throughout its running time, the pacing of the images is really quite perfect – and if you’re actually thinking about the subject, it’s all the more apropos as timing is the key to music. Alongside all of the great songs, the nicely-done foley sounds, and its deliberate use of silence, Whiplash manages to match its visuals to the music being played on-screen in an exciting and stunning fashion.

The picture makes the most of its premise through great direction, dialogue, and acting. In addition to my compliments on its pace, it also shows good use of tone. It keeps its plots relatively simple, with the story only standing out because it goes on for a while after what would usually be the climax in other movies. That’s refreshingly different, and the picture makes fine use of the time, holding your interest throughout. What’s so impressive about this film, then, is not how good the story is – it’s neither great nor bad – but how well the story is told.

Films don’t display suffering for art like this often. Andrew is likely to have difficulty connecting with other people for years. Worse still, the events herein might have left him unduly standoffish or with a temper problem – those are among the most terrible aftereffects of abuse. Fletcher, meanwhile, has friendly colleagues, but I’d bet money that he has no friends. He’s also likely to die of a heart attack or a stroke, which is what I try to keep in mind when I have to deal with crazy-angry people.

Not all art comes from negative emotions, when it comes from emotion at all. I can’t be sure how different it is for performing artists, but creating something is a great way to purge one’s feelings. Sad jazz works well because it’s a release of sadness; it’s a triumphal act, even, in drawing beauty out of ugliness. As much as any artist strives to get it right, performing artists like drummers probably feel massive pressure for perfection. In someone as young as Andrew, it’s a dangerous enough cocktail without a beast like Fletcher around.

I liked this picture’s realism – there’s a common little moment in a movie theater that made me laugh hard. It helps ground a film that is full of exaggeration in the personalities and actions of its leads. I like that conversations stutter, stop, and sometimes stumble. The movie, however, is not perfect.

The three big flaws here are all logical plot problems, and they’re pretty obvious, actually (highlight the following text only if you’ve seen the movie): Andrew was already too late for his last competition (he was late before the crash), so he wouldn’t have been on-stage at all; Fletcher would have been fired long ago because, if nothing else, the fear of a lawsuit would force the school’s hand; Andrew would likely face some punishment other than expulsion due to concussion, blood loss; and my main man Fletch has a diabolical plan that would have left his band without a drummer for the rest of the final performance. GTFO

All of these failings, though, are tiny little speedbumps in a fine, entertaining ride. This is only writer/director Damien Chazelle's second film, a fact I find kind of astonishing - ignoring all the indie tropes, this is a very confident and competently-directed work. You should see this movie, if only for the timing of the music and visuals, and to see how J.K. totally locked that Oscar down.

Warning: this video may contain spoilers and mild hilarity.

In case you've already seen the movie, let me know what you think, and please enjoy some extra notes that I made during (and after) I watched the pic:

-He's the Latrell Sprewell of drumming, while he's the Ty Cobb of jazz band conducting. Can these two different guys just get along? (No. A thousand times no.)
-Holy shit, it's like Glee met Secretary.
-Who would be stupid enough to "wing" the rhythm section of a jazz song? You put down your sticks and do nothing. Getting up and running out is also pretty stupid.
-Oddly, the title would be apt for an S&M film, and we end up with a mature, not adult, movie that has a sadomasochistic relationship. Nice double fakeout!
-This is also the Luke-Emperor stuff from Return of the Jedi, without lasers, the force, or aliens. Jesus h.
-It's possible that this guy is such a Mussolini type not simply for feeling justified, but to feel like he should explain why he does it... It may move the plot forward, but I'd've bought the scene if Fletcher had said it to a stranger in a bar.
-This is like a reverse distaff The Devil Wears Prada.
-Can we please call the sequel "2 Whip, 2 Lash?"


  1. Awesome review! I'm not sure if I agree with your three problems, especially that I think Fletcher had a back up drummer just in case. As for school firing him here in Poland we have actual teachers accused of molesting children still working in schools, but I gather America is thank Gods, more equipped in protecting the young ones.

    I really enjoyed the film, it had such rhythm and it was so well done. Have you seen Birdman? I award Norton over Simmons but Simmons really was unforgettable here

    1. Thanks, Sati! Honestly, those 3 problems are rather minor, and open to debate. I will say there was no sign of a backup, & Fletcher would've enjoyed some time of doing his thing, but it sounded as if he'd been teaching there for ages. As to that last point, sadly, It's less likely to be from protecting kids than from avoiding legal liability.

      Yes, I have seen Birdman and I liked it a lot! Norton was good, but his part was smaller and did not impress me as much as Simmons' did. My Birdman review should be ready in a week or so. I still have another 4 or 5 reviews to complete before I'm done with 2014; sigh...

  2. Hey, great review! Whiplash was the final film I saw at the film festival here and it was such an experience! Did you watch it on big screen because if you didn't, let me just tell you that it's a thing of beauty. The whole film is fantastic though the final scene is definitely one of my most favourite scenes of all time. I felt like I could punch through a wall after it, it just energized every part of me- I've NEVER had a film do that to me, and I'm a person who usually does get affected a lot after watching certain films.

    I didn't really mind any of your problems. I think in the grand scheme of this film, they didn't really factor. I thought the way it looked and obviously sounded and the performances were great. I have to agree with Margaret though and say that Norton beat Simmons for me though the latter was totally deserving of that Oscar too.

    1. Thanks, love! I tried to see it with friends, but it was sold out (we did Big Hero 6 instead). And I regretted not trying again by the time I was halfway through Whiplash! I'm very glad you got to see it properly and, yeah, it's definitely the kind of film to get you charged like that. How the unholy f--k is a movie about smooth jazz competitions so energizing? It's incredible.

      Those problems aren't even especially bad... But they are their and it feels a little weird giving nothing but unabashed praise. Actually, wait, the part where it looks like Terrence doesn't have a drummer in the end was a serious issue, but even there, my feelings are "fine, whatever the movie's still great."

      Norton... he occupies a less critical role than Simmons did, and Norton's in a movie that is. Well, I liked Birdman, but I can completely understand why some people must've hated it. Whiplash? Ain't nobody gonna dismiss Whiplash...

      Dammit, I want to see both of those movies again now.


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