Format: DVD from NetFlix on various players.
Typically, I spend a good portion of movie reviews going through the basics of the narrative of the film under discussion. I do this mostly because narrative and plot and how these things work within the context of a film are what interest me the most about film in general. I’m not going to do this for Whiplash. The reason is that Whiplash turns out to be a film that is very personal for me for a couple of reasons.
For all of the music, for all of the legendary abuse heaped onto the main character, at its heart, Whiplash is the story of the relationship between a teacher and a student. I am a teacher, and I have a number of students with whom I’ve developed a relationship over the years. That’s true with anyone who teaches. I have former students as Facebook friends and who talk to me if they see me out in the world. I’m certain that I also have former students who think I’m a massive jackass. But I can look at students who honestly took a leap of faith to trust me as a teacher. Far be it from me to call anything sacred, but if anything is, that sort of trust is in the running.
I also have two daughters who are involved in the arts. Both are ballet dancers, the older serious enough that she left high school to enroll in a college-level dance program at 15. I know what that world is like. I know the viciousness that can happen between mentor and student in any artistic endeavor. I know the long nights, the failed rehearsals. Where Andrew (Miles Teller) in Whiplash suffers through bleeding hands, I’ve seen my daughter suffer through bleeding feet from hours spent en pointe. As extreme as Whiplash may be, I know that reality sometimes comes close to what we see on the screen.
The issue I take with this is it very much feels like Whiplash endorses this idea. The central take of Whiplash, at least as I see it, is that the ends justify the means when it comes to any sort of artistic expression. If a teacher can coax a great performance out of someone through coercion, screaming, violence, physical abuse, or emotional degradation, well, it’s all to the good if that great performance happens in the end. I know that art requires sacrifice, sometimes huge sacrifice. What happens in Whiplash isn’t about sacrifice. It’s about abuse.
It’s entirely possible that I could get some of my students to write exceptionally well if I treated them with contempt and ridicule or threw my lecture notes at their head the way ensemble jazz band leader Fletcher (newly-minted Best Supporting Actor winner J.K. Simmons) does to our hyper-driven drummer Andrew. And if I did something like that, I’d lose my job not just before the day was over but before that class ended, and rightfully so. Even outside of a school context, Fletcher engages in behavior that doesn’t simply border on criminal, it crosses the line into it gleefully and gives the line the finger.
There are some real highpoints to Whiplash. First and foremost, the music really is spectacular when we are actually given more than a few bars of it at a time. If you don’t like classic jazz at all, there are going to be some rough times ahead in this film, but if you can appreciate Miles Davis or Thelonius Monk, there’s a lot to appreciate in the performances. Jazz isn’t my music of choice, but it’s also not music I’ll turn off if I hear it playing, and for me at least, the music here is pretty great.
The second noteworthy thing about Whiplash is the twin performances of Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. Neither Andrew nor Fletcher are people I’d want to spend more than a couple of seconds with in real life, but that’s hardly the fault of the actors. In fact, it’s a testament to just how good these performances are that both of them are compelling on screen despite being awful people. Simmons, as the recent Oscar attests to, is magnetic on screen. There’s no not watching him whenever he’s in front of the camera. Since the word is that J.K. Simmons is such a sweetheart in real life (at least according to director Damien Chazelle), his turn as perhaps the most cruel cinematic taskmaster outside of a military boot camp is all the more noteworthy.
Miles Teller, at least in Whiplash, has what the Germans call a Backpfiefengesicht, or a face that is begging to be slapped. Again, in reality Miles Teller seems like a nice enough guy, so it’s a credit to his performance that he’s so personally repellent and yet so worth watching throughout the film.
Ultimately, though, I find Whiplash to be a really good film with some truly excellent performances that I don’t like very much. I think the underlying message of the ends justifying the means is an ugly and unfortunate one. It’s worth it for the music and for the performances throughout, but I can’t say that it’s worth it for the story it tells.
Why to watch Whiplash: The music is great and so are the performances.
Why not to watch: The message is ugly.
I see we're pretty much on the same wavelength. I disagree with the message of the movie, too.ReplyDelete
I loved your description of Miles Teller's character as someone who has a face that needs to be slapped. He's played a dick in every film I've seen him in so far (Project X, The Spectacular Now, Divergent, and Whiplash - especially the last two.) Maybe he's getting typecast or maybe he's found his specialty.
I think this is my first Miles Teller film, or at least I don't remember him in anything else. Hey, if he's found his place in the world playing assholes, good on him.Delete
But yeah--I read through your review after I posted mine and we came to a lot of the same conclusions. This is a really well made but ultimately ugly film.
I get your point entirely. As a fellow teacher i know that there are buttons to be pushed but also lines to be drawn. Terrance Fletcher is a nightmare, and anyone seeing this film knows that. The turn you speak of however did not seem to me to be an endorsement of his behavior. It forces us to ask a question, "What are we willing to do or endure to achieve greatness?", the pathological instructor has failed at reaching 99% of his students. One that he did come close to killed himself as a result of his abusive techniques. It takes a pathological narcissist like Andrew to accept the conditions and try to reach the goal. He and Fletcher may see it as justifying the result, but everyone watching will ask the question is this really what we want or need? When Andrew asks the question of Fletcher "What if Bird had been discouraged instead of being challenged, both he and Fletcher reveal how deluded they are by their process when they say simultaneously, "Charlie Parker" wouldn't be discouraged". This question begging answer show what frauds both of them are, this technique will only work on the right kind of pitiful human being, who is willing to accept the worst kind of treatment from a real monster. The fact that it works is not so much an endorsement as it is a horrific realization of how the two of them deserve each other. Will he become the greatest jazz drummer ever, maybe. He will however remain a self centered prick who could only be reached by another more aggressively self centered prick.ReplyDelete
I loved this movie and will be watching repeatedly for the rest of my life for it's qualities as a film, not for the message you are worried about.Delete
That may well be Damien Chazelle's intent with Whiplash, but there's very much a sense that regardless of how terrible both characters are, Fletcher's tactics worked. He drove Andrew harder than most people could be pushed and Andrew responded to it. Intended or not, that's a message that is undoubtedly here, and one that I think is incredibly dangerous.Delete
There are already enough people in the world who drive their kids to be insanely successful and competitive and damn the costs. The last thing these people need is the validation that this sort of mental and emotional abuse can ultimately lead to success. After all, what are friends or a conscience when true greatness is on the line? What sacrifice isn't worth immortality?
I stand by the comments. Whiplash is a beautifully executed and superbly acted film with a terrible message that a lot of viewers will take from it.
I agree with you completely, Steve. It was a very upsetting film.ReplyDelete
When, in the final act, Andrew goes on stage for Fletcher's great show I get the feeling that it is pay back time. that the director will now deliver the final and deserving blow to Fletcher's vanity. Andrew is not handed the notes to the first song, another vicious blow from Fletcher and Andrew could have stop up and walked out. He would have lost nothing, but Fletcher would have been destroyed - again. And this would have been a criticism of Fletcher's abusive style. But no, the story turns 180 degreee's and become an endoresement of abuse! That is just revolting.
Yeah, that's how I see it as well. I think it could be argued in a lot of different ways, but my initial impression of the film's message is that the ends justify the means...and they really don't.Delete
One of my brothers is a professional musician (cellist). I wonder whether he's ever encountered teachers as maniacal as this. Anyway, "Whiplash" is on my must-see list, if for no other reason than to witness the darker side of J. Jonah Jameson. Thanks for the review.ReplyDelete
I know that Kid #1 has come close in places. Nothing as abusive as happens in this film, but there have been times when she's been torn down by an instructor.Delete
She made the decision a long time ago, though, that she'd never let a director see her cry.
Good for her! I applaud her strength and resolve.Delete