Blood, Sweat and Tears. But mostly blood.
Man, there is blood over EVERYTHING in this movie; blood over his hands, his drums, his cymbals, his sticks. It’s like you can’t practice the drums without a significant amount of blood loss. So this is jazz, huh?
WHIPLASH shows us the rugged reality of chasing dreams, the mind-numbing repetition and unsung practice; about a drummer giving his all to be the best, about a teacher that gives no quarter to get the best; filled with pain and abuse and fear and loathing – and jazz that is actually listenable…
Miles Teller (21 & OVER) is Andrew Neiman, a young ambitious drummer overjoyed to be chosen for the prestigious Schaffer Academy of Music’s top tier jazz ensemble. J.K. Simmons (THE CLOSER) is Fletcher, who runs the fictional Schaffer ensemble like a Gunnery Sergeant from FULL METAL JACKET.
As a piano tutor, I had to watch this, right? As any kind of tutor – WHIPLASH is our bible and our damnation.
At their first class, Fletcher welcomes Neiman by leaning in paternally (maybe a tad too close) and cooing obliquities into his ear (“Don’t worry about what these guys say – have fun!”), but Neiman soon discovers Fletcher tortures more than teaches, his morbid methods based around a singular anecdote: “Charlie Parker became “Bird” because Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head.” (In reality, Jones threw it at Parker’s feet derisively.) Meaning that if veteran Jones had given the neophyte Parker any kudos or leeway, Parker would not have strived to be the best. Only by telling a musician hard truths about how much they had to learn would they become great – IF they had it in them. At least, that’s Fletcher’s diehard philosophy, throwing chairs at the heads of his students, verbally abusing them, mentally traumatizing them “to push people beyond what’s expected of them.” Fletcher tells Neiman: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’”
J.K. Simmons is this generation’s Pete Postlethwaite: eternally 50, never looks younger, never gets older. Buffed like a Spider-Man villain for this role, clad in vanta black, his one-size-too-small tee showing off his triceps like a threat, his conductor/musical director role perfectly cast, as he is a former musician who wanted to be a composer and conductor! (Later in the film, we would see him confidently coax a mellow jazz melody from a dive bar piano. It’s a good and lame moment – to discuss later.)
Just as Miles Teller is also perfectly cast – in real life, a rock drummer! For the film, he was taught jazz rudiments (and that cacky-handed style of holding the sticks!), his teacher none other than Nate Lang, who plays lead drummer Tanner in Fletcher’s troupe, whom Neiman is in constant battle with to earn the chair. Whiplash is one of the feature jazz pieces that would haunt their classes.
Yes, WHIPLASH contains minor discrepancies that will make deep-rooted jazz players cringe, but these faults don’t detract from the overall kinetic clashing of the two principals. Like complaining about IMMORTAL BELOVED, a movie that captures the wild spirit of Beethoven even whilst swirling with incorrect facts in characters, chronology and history.
WHIPLASH revolves around the Neiman and Fletcher characters like a referee circling the Thrilla in Manilla. There is nothing outside of their headstrong spheres – at home Neiman is a restless drum-battering trainwreck, following an untraditional career pathway that his dad (Paul Reiser) doesn’t understand but supports passively; Neiman doesn’t succumb to a traditional boyfriend-girlfriend relationship (with Melissa Benoist), breaking it off rather than pandering to society’s idea of couplehood; when Neiman is onstage with Fletcher in public competitions, we never see the judges, or even the audience reactions – only their battle of wits and musicianship; we never see Fletcher interact with other teachers, and even when they fire him for his student abuse, we don’t see that meeting… it is all about Tutor vs. Student. Like Fletcher, the editing and storyline is cut lean and mean, by writer-director Damien Chazelle (LA LA LAND, FIRST MAN). The movie is apparently semi-autobiographical, as Chazelle was a jazz drummer who suffered at the hands of his own Fletcher.
Fletcher’s insults are scathingly hilarious, his character seemingly based on perfectionist drummer Buddy Rich, most notably from “the bus tapes” – audio recordings of Rich going off on his neophyte bandmates like a shark smelling fresh bleeding leg. As if to strengthen that influence, Neiman idolizes Buddy Rich.
In WHIPLASH, Chazelle has crafted a canny study in absolute power and fear of mediocrity. Jazz is simply a stepping stone to the pathological meat of the damaged characters. Fletcher wields his absolute power for fear of himself becoming a mediocrity as a tutor. (He would admit later that he has yet to find his Bird.) And the students don’t simply walk out on his abuse because Fletcher has instilled in them that same fear of mediocrity; the fear of failure, the fear of never having given it a shot at being one of the greats.
This is not SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISHER, with the message that you can be a prodigy at one thing, and then balance other interests around that one thing – this is maximum overdrive dedication; this is only that one thing existing in your orbit; this is not about the joy of music, or the love of creating art – this is pure uncut Obsession.
Find a job you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.
After sustaining a major car accident and yet trying to perform, for fear of Fletcher’s wrath, Neiman is thrown out of the class, all bloodied and broken. This prompts the Academy to approach Neiman to anonymously testify to Fletcher’s abuse, and would result in Fletcher’s ousting. Months later, Neiman would discover Fletcher playing piano in a dive bar…
Why is Fletcher’s piano scene good and bad? Well, all the performed music in this movie is diegetic, and the sound sync on all the performers is almost flawless, including Simmons here, who is actually playing, which is great for his character (a piece that requires control and nuance, that would be repeated as soundtrack under Neiman re-discovering his drums) – HOWEVER – this is not what you’d hear at a New York jazz club, where cats come to throw down fresh jive. Fletcher would complain to Neiman about “Starbucks playing,” and this is exactly the soporific, safe, Starbucks playing that true jazz aficionados would laugh at. Was it an indication that, for all his bluster, Fletcher himself was merely a mediocrity?
Which leads us to that enigmatic ending: Fletcher sits down with Neiman at this dive bar for a casual drink – it’s heartening to see Fletcher so down to Earth after all the cartoonish rage. And when Fletcher invites Neiman to sit-in at an important jazz festival, it seems all the animosity is behind them—but wait!… Fletcher sets up Neiman to fail… Onstage, ready to start, Fletcher bluntly tells Neiman, “I knew it was you” [who got him fired], and then performs an unfamiliar song that Neiman flails through hopelessly.
Neiman slinks offstage humiliated, but then storms back on to the drumseat unbidden, to the chagrin of Fletcher, to throw down a monumental battering jam, with him leading Fletcher’s orchestra (which is a big “fuck you” in itself, but Neiman also mouths a silent “fuck you” to Fletcher to boot). I woulda thought that Fletcher’s original drummer would have been there, ready to jump in after Fletcher sprung his trap – but there’s no one manning the drums, which begs the question: What was Fletcher’s endgame? Because he ruined his own rep by having a doink on the drums, and no backup – as he keeps reminding us, all these performances redound to HIM: “his” band, “his” charts, “his” musicians. And HE is on trial as much as any of the musicians. So I suspended my disbelief for Neiman to climb back into the cockpit… And when we think it’s over – his drum solo is just beginning! (At which point there is blood all over the drumkit – of course.) He wins the respect of Fletcher. And before it cuts to black on the final crash, we see a slight smile cross Neiman’s face as he meets Fletcher’s eyes. In hard closeup, Fletcher cracks the barest of smiles back…
Do the protagonist and antagonist BOTH win? Not that easy. [Not my tempo]
Neiman’s dad peeks from the wings, and the look on his face during Neiman’s solo says it all. At once, amazed that my son could achieve such things, and simultaneously, that I have lost my son. Lost to the surrogate father, Fletcher. And to jazz. During the solo, Fletcher starts coaching Neiman, but not in a condescending way, now as an equal, not taunting but encouraging, approving nods and gestures, guiding Neiman to the greatness that he knew was in him all along. Whether Neiman had gained the respect of Fletcher or not is irrelevant, because in Neiman overcoming the grandest adversity, Fletcher had been vindicated. Fletcher had won. No matter how cruel and unethical and illegal his methods were – he had found his Bird.
Reminds us of THAT’S MY BOY – yes, a Jerry Lewis comedy, which ends on a seemingly up note, when Jerry finds his place in football… But football was his father’s dream, not his! To eke out that “happy ending,” his character succumbed to the will of his abuser. So too in WHIPLASH. And we are left wondering whether this is an UP ending or a DOWN ending. What is the message? That Neiman does, in fact, thrive on torture? That music, if done correctly – isolating yourself, being misunderstood, practicing past pain – doesn’t tame the savage beast, so much as turn us into savage beasts ourselves?
And if that’s the case, then with WHIPLASH, Chazelle has forged a song for the damaged. And if music’s wrong, we don’t wanna be right. The blood is just gravy.