Whiplash is a fascinating, sizzling film that gets at a profound question: just how does one nurture greatness? To believe the character of Terence Fletcher, played toweringly by J.K. Simmons, it’s through humiliation, insult, and basic brutality. He is easily seen as a villain. But is he? Is there a different responsibility for the teachers of genius? As he says, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.'”
The film was written and directed by Damien Chazelle, in only his second feature. As with many great films, it takes us to a place most of us would have no conception of: the highly competitive world of a jazz band at a music conservatory. Miles Teller stars a freshman at the school (something like Julliard) and we first see him on his drum kit in a practice room. He is having a grand old time (drumming does look fun, until the hands start to bleed) when an almost spectral figure in black enters the room. This is Simmons, who is always scouting these rooms for new players in his prestigious band.
Teller eventually gets there, but the combat begins right away. Simmons finds Teller’s vulnerabilities–his mother left when he was a boy, and his father is a failed writer–and exploits them. He does this with everyone, whether it’s their physical size, sexual orientation, or ethnicity (notably, there are no women in the band–come to think of it, there have been very few female jazz instrumentalists) and squeezes the best out of them through abuse. Teller’s first inkling is when Simmons hurls a chair at him when he can’t get the tempo right. Teller sheds a single tear, and Simmons mocks him: “Oh no, you’re not of those single tear people, are you?”
This kind of teaching is reminiscent of scandals in college and high school athletics, where coaches have lost jobs over mistreatment of players, whether it’s hurling balls or calling them names. It somehow seems more rarefied in the dignified hallways of the conservatory, but Simmons, his bald head shining, thickly muscled under his black t-shirts, makes a monster nonetheless, a jazz Lex Luthor. Even when the movie attempts to humanize him, when he remembers a student who died, there’s a fly in the ointment.
Almost all of the film takes place in the rehearsal room or theater, where it belongs. The few scenes that lie flat are those involving Teller’s family, including his feckless dad (Paul Reiser) and a relationship with a pretty college girl (Melissa Beloist), whom he dumps because he realizes she’ll resent him for not spending time with her–he’d rather be great than canoodle. It should be said that Teller’s is not a warm and fuzzy character. He has poor social skills, no friends, and a single-mindedness that borders on psychopathy. At a family dinner, he says that he would rather end up like Charlie Parker, dead in the gutter at 34, than live to be 90 and have no one talk about him.
Of course there is a lot of music in this film. The title comes from one piece that we hear over and over again, and while I’m not a jazz connoisseur, it is right, both as a word to describe the film and an energizing piece of music. The other is “Caravan,” most associated with Duke Ellington. I have no idea how much actually drumming Teller did, but if I hadn’t known better and you would have told me he was a world class drummer who was making his acting debut, I would have bought it. You believe he is doing the drumming, and can feel the pain with him while he drips blood and sweat on the snare drum.
Chazelle makes the most of his chance here, and some might think it’s over-directed, but I think a film about jazz music needs this kind of frenetic touch, with quick cuts (the editing is by Tom Cross) that flow with the music. The ending scene, which involves a bring-down-the-house version of “Caravan” (I won’t say more) is breathtaking in its composition. Even the costumes make a difference. As I said, Simmons always wears black, save for one key scene late in the film, when he wears white.
One thought did occur to me: what would Terence Fletcher have done with Keith Moon?
My grade for Whiplash: A-.