March Issue 2015

By | Movies | Published 9 years ago

Andrew studies at a prestigious music school and wants to become a jazz drummer. A very good jazz drummer. A jazz drummer to be remembered for ages. Terence Fletcher is the one teacher at the music school who can help him achieve this goal, but — as becomes evident very soon in the film — Fletcher also boasts the sheer force of personality to break his students down completely on the path to turn them into virtuosos.

Whiplash is not Black Swan, which boasted many surrealistic elements and could even be denigrated as highbrow kitsch. Nor is it a jazzed-up version of the heartwarming yet corny Rocky, in which the audience finds itself rooting all the way for the underdog to rise to the top. But Whiplash is similar to these films in the sense that director Damien Chazelle emphasises the physical toll of becoming a great musician. We see Andrew (Miles Teller) not only break down in sweat as he performs for Fletcher again and again and again, until he finally masters the tempo, but also bleeding from his hand as he rehearses late into the night in the hope of finally impressing his instructors. And when Andrew and his peers don’t meet Fletcher’s high expectations, things often turn violent very fast. In the beginning of the film, for example, Fletcher handpicks Andrew for the studio band. As Andrew takes his place behind the drums for the first time in this ensemble setting, Fletcher warmly encourages Andrew to do his best. However, Andrew fails to find the right beat and Fletcher grows so frustrated he throws a chair at his new student. Andrew ducks in time, but the psychological and physical trauma continues over the course of the movie, to the extent that by the end of the film the narrative almost becomes a little too far-fetched and melodramatic, but more on that later.

This is a stunningly shot film with the editing, in particular, cutting to the music and complimenting the score. More importantly, the film boasts some stellar performances and J.K. Simmons as Fletcher plays the role of the intimidating, nearly sadistic teacher so convincingly that the audience can truly feel Andrew’s fear every time Fletcher enters the scene. Simmons earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for this film, and although Edward Norton (Birdman) and Robert Duvall (The Judge), offered stiff competition, Simmons certainly had a strong shot at clinching the award. Miles Teller might be slightly overshadowed in this film, but that is not to say his acting is anything but impressive. In most of the scenes, Teller is drumming himself, as faking it would have been too obvious and his portrayal of Andrew as an ambitious yet extremely vulnerable and fragile college freshman is so convincing that the viewer forgets the actor is actually 28 years old.

As the movie progresses, however, Fletcher demands more and more out of Andrew and the manipulative games he plays with his student border on the implausible. In one scene, Andrew nearly dies trying to make it to a concert in time and scenes like these feel too direct, too obvious and too manipulative to the audience.

Critics have also pointed out that Whiplash (perhaps deliberately) misrepresents an anecdote about the legendary saxophonist Charlier Parker a.k.a Bird. In the film, the characters repeatedly tell each other how Parker once was performing with drummer Jo Jones when he made a mistake and Jones threw a cymbal at his head. Parker didn’t get hurt, but he became determined to never let that happen again and began practicing obsessively until he earned the moniker Bird. Fletcher, therefore, believes his toughness will turn students into geniuses like Bird, but the problem is that the real incident was not as violent as he, or the director, would have us believe. In reality, Jones did not throw the cymbal at Parker’s head, but instead on the ground near his feet to interrupt his poor performance. Humiliating? Yes. Violent? Not quite. But the film’s stance on Fletcher’s blatantly abusive behaviour is ambiguous since the ending suggests that while Fletcher is a horrible person, he does, in a roundabout way, succeed in turning Andrew into a better drummer than he would have been without his highly manipulative pedagogical techniques.

Still, watch Whiplash for the acting, the palpable tension and, of course, the brilliant jazz music.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s March 2015 issue.

Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.