Fletcher recognises talent in Andrew and invites him to join the school’s elite performance band – which is where the trouble begins, in the form of verbal abuse, bleeding knuckles and a hell of a lot of psychological trauma.
The relatively predictable storyline is elevated by the performances of the two leads. JK Simmons has been garnering a lot of awards buzz (and has already picked up a few trophies) for his magnetic portrayal of the sadistic Fletcher and Miles Teller throws everything into the part of Andrew, dripping with sweat and blood and pummelling the drums with a ferocious desperation that’s often painful to watch.
It’s precisely this constant presence of pain that makes Whiplash at once more and less than it could have been; for a film about an overwhelming passion for music, it’s remarkably devoid of joy. The film wants us to endure the mental and physical pain purposefully inflicted by Fletcher on his students; it lingers on close-ups of Andrew plunging his bleeding hands into buckets of ice, of the hurt in his eyes when Fletcher gives his part to another drummer, of the single tear dribbling down his cheek as the man he’s so eager to impress taunts him about his mother’s abandonment.
Writer/Director Damien Chazelle deserves credit for creating a film that poses more questions than it answers – on the nature of genius, the thin line between ambition and obsession, how we measure success and how myths become part of our personal narrative. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel that the film also leaves us with a few too many questions about how we should interpret the narrative itself, questions that are the mark of a woolly script, rather than the natural product of a provocative drama.
How are we supposed to feel about Andrew’s drumming ability? Is the ‘triumphant’ final solo a demonstration of his real potential for genius, or is it simply a form of wish fulfilment for both Andrew (who wants so badly to succeed) and Fletcher (whose central purpose is the discovery of a new musical star)?
As my drummer companion pointed out, the moments of sub-standard drumming were SO bad that we both struggled to remain invested in the idea that Andrew had the elusive spark of genius needed to capture Fletcher’s attention – a hook which is pretty crucial to the film’s narrative.
Instead of complicated drumming technique, Chazelle relies largely on phallic imagery, falling back on Andrew’s half-pained, half-ecstatic expression and rapid expulsion of bodily fluids to signal to the viewer that something difficult and (potentially) remarkable is about to happen. When he practices, we see him obsessing over playing as quickly as possible and little else – though this is partly the fault of the script, which has Fletcher’s quest for musical perfection manifest itself almost entirely in an obsession with tempo.
How much more interesting it would have been to have set Fletcher’s fervent repetition of the (flawed) Charlie Parker myth set against a fresh love of jazz in Andrew. In fact, for a film about a professedly passionate and talented young man at the start of his career, we are shown very little evidence of Andrew’s love of music at all. He sticks a photo of Buddy Rich on his wall and once we see him listening to a CD, but, in the world of YouTube, surely he would be spending his time devouring videos of jazz drummers, absorbing their styles, trying them on for size and generally engaging in the activities necessary to shape and hone musical identity. Instead, his ambition – the defining quality that the film is so eager to hammer home – is expressed through the way he pushes people away, in a vague attempt to cultivate an image of ‘tortured genius’.
Even Fletcher’s talent can be debated. The performance band seems only to play corny jazz standards, his critique never rises above the patronisingly simplistic (students are either out of time or out of tune) and his references are years out of date. A scene where Andrew spots Fletcher playing piano in a club is ambiguous: does it indicate that, underneath Fletcher’s ruthlessness, he’s driven by a love of music – and, more specifically, of jazz? Or are we meant to realise that his internalisation of the Charlie Parker myth is his way of coping with the knowledge that he will never be more than an average player in a pokey bar?
For a movie that thrives in the most basic scenes, when the tension rests on the dark chemistry between its lead actors, it falls victim to moments of overblown melodrama that are unnecessary and, at times, laughable. Surely we can recognise the damage inflicted by Fletcher’s psychological warfare without having to believe that Andrew could be hit side-on by a lorry and walk away with injuries mild enough that he can still attempt to play a concert?
Along with the brilliant performances, the film’s strength lies in its technical merit; the use of the jazz rhythms in the cinematography and editing, the way it zooms closely on each actor’s face and cuts quickly and unexpectedly between instruments and emotions, mimicking the unpredictable rhythms of the music and creating a heart-pounding pace that drives the film towards its conclusion.
My companion and I tried to rise above the misrepresentation of the musical genre, the technical inaccuracies and fallacies. But, the thing is, the film itself prevents you from doing just that. It makes such a statement about the all-encompassing nature of music and ambition that it’s impossible to ignore it when it hits a bum note.
The reason the jazz and drumming communities have been up in arms about Whiplash is not just the technicality of the drumming; it’s about the film’s inability to show any kind of musical instinct in Andrew or Fletcher. Neither one of them demonstrates the sense of inner rhythm, timing, relaxed improvisation, and ability to listen that characterises a real musician and jazz fan. Locked in a battle about the nature of genius, the irony is that neither one comes even close to achieving it.
The final act is exhilarating, if slightly too long, and the film has moments where it approaches brilliance. It’s a shame that, like Andrew himself when he gets behind a drum kit, it lets itself down with self-indulgence, a lack of awareness of the context and a sense of its own importance.