SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t seen Whiplash yet, major plot points are revealed below so you might want to come back later.
I don’t know how Damien Chazelle got the money to make a psychological thriller about jazz drumming but I’m very glad he did. Whiplash, which I saw last night, depicts musicianship with an intensity that I’ve never seen in a movie about rock music: a symphony of whip-pans, zooms and rat-a-tat editing, spattered with sweat and blood. It’s also a tense moral fable about the nature of ambition. As with any good movie, its strengths are clarified when you consider the fiercest critiques.
In a typically entertaining screed, the New Yorker’s jazz-loving film critic Richard Brody said Whiplash “gets jazz all wrong”, but that’s to assume it is trying to get jazz “right”. “What x gets wrong about y” is one of my least favourite approaches to fiction anyway. Apocalypse Now is not an accurate representation of Vietnam, The Third Man takes liberties with post-war Vienna and I’m pretty sure The Shining misrepresents the hotel business. So what? Whiplash is not a Ken Burns documentary. As a visceral depiction of obsession and sadomasochism, it reminded me of Full Metal Jacket (“wrong” about war), Raging Bull (“wrong” about boxing) and Black Swan (“wrong” about ballet). It renders drumming as violent as hand-to-hand combat and presents a piece of music as something to be beaten into submission. The most ironic line in the movie is when JK Simmons’ tyrannical conductor Terence Fletcher tells his terrified band to “have fun”. Fun is not the point.
This is what bothers the “wrong about jazz” crew but I don’t think Whiplash claims that there’s only one way to play jazz, nor that there’s only one path to greatness. Chazelle himself used to be a hyper-competitive high-school jazz drummer (“It was a pretty narrowly focused life”) but he quit, so Whiplash is a personal what-if?. Rather than endorsing Fletcher’s monomaniacal vision, I think the director is examining it — following its brutal logic to the bitter end.
Nineteen-year-old prodigy Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is only vulnerable to Fletcher because he fundamentally agrees with him. His drumming idol is the showboating Buddy Rich, not a team player, and he is fixated on technique and stamina above all else. My other favourite recent movie about music is We Are the Best!, Lukas Moodysson’s story of three schoolgirl punks in 1980s Sweden (which, by the way, Richard Brody thought got punk all wrong). That’s about everything music can give you if you don’t have technical chops — camaraderie, catharsis, confidence — while Whiplash is only about the chops. Andrew’s achievement is athletic rather than artistic, with no indication that he has the creativity necessary for genius. Almost every music movie I can think of uses screaming fans to confirm the players’ brilliance. Here, we see a lot of practice but, if I remember rightly, only one shot of an audience, and a nonplussed one at that. Whiplash scythes away everything in music-making to do with pleasure and leaves only the hard work.
Jazz fans have pointed out that Fletcher’s favourite anecdote, about a teenage Charlie Parker being driven to genius after drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head, is false and Johnson only aimed it at his feet. He was trying to mock Parker, not kill him. Perhaps the mistake is indeed Chazelle’s, or perhaps the distortion is meant to give you a glimpse of Fletcher’s madness. The bully needs to reassure himself that bullying works.
The movie seduces us into a twisted value system while reminding us how twisted it is, creating a slippery dual perspective. Andrew’s single dad is either a loving, supportive mensch or a pitiable, ineffectual schmoe. Nicole, the indecisive college student whom Andrew dates, appears to fulfil that classic role in aggressively masculine dramas of the relationship-focussed woman who stands in the way of the man following the dream on which the narrative depends. But she is so sympathetically drawn that we cringe when Andrew disdains her lack of ambition and then dumps her because he absurdly assumes that a relationship is incompatible with musical greatness. In the dinner table scene, it’s funny when he mocks the high-school football heroes (his cousins? I missed the connection) for not being NFL-worthy but it’s also embarrassing and cruel because he thinks anyone who doesn’t have a shot at being the best is risible.
Several times, we are told that Andrew has no friends; he gazes more longingly at his photo of Buddy Rich than he does at any human being. When he risks life and limb to get to his final competition (for his sake, not the band’s), it’s clear he’s lost his mind. Ambition is the worm in Andrew’s soul, a moral corruption that draws him ever closer to a monster and gives him Randian contempt for anyone who doesn’t desire greatness at any cost.
In the bravura final sequence, during which my heart was pounding in double-time, Andrew veers from humilation to triumph. The audience in the cinema last night applauded. Whiplash resembles a sports movie to some extent but, unlike a sports movie, you cannot unambiguously win, so what kind of victory is it really? Andrew doesn’t give a shit about his bandmates (his long solo is pure selfishness) or the audience, only the approval of a brute. And Fletcher doesn’t care either. Is it an enjoyable show for anyone else? We never find out. The movie has reached its inevitable destination as a closed circuit of Andrew, Fletcher and the drumkit. Nothing else matters. Chazelle has said: “Fletcher’s mindset is, ‘If I have 100 students, and 99 of them are, because of my teaching, ultimately discouraged and crushed from ever pushing this art form, but one of them becomes Charlie Parker, it was all worth it.’ That’s not a mentality I share, but in many ways, that’s the story of the movie.”
And so, fully corrupted at last, Andrew has become Michael Corleone closing the door at the end of The Godfather. Two crucial questions are left open for the viewer. Where does he go from here? Fletcher’s icons of achievement, Charlie Parker and his trumpet-playing former protégé, both died young because they had mastered music but not life. And are Fletcher’s standards correct or is Andrew nothing more than a spectacular technician?
For me, neither question has an uplifting answer. Andrew’s tragedy is that would rather be a great musician than a good person. The kicker is that he might not even be a great musician.