Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Movie – Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash is the kind of movie that will probably polarize some people.  The rating on IMDB is stratospheric, so apparently the young males who predominate on that site are buying into the story in this film.  On the other hand, there’s a really, really bad message that is being presented by the movie – that being on the receiving end of unrelenting abuse is ultimately good for you.

You can tell that writer/director Damien Chazelle wants us to see this as a similar story to An Officer and a Gentleman, where the stern taskmaster is just trying to bring out the best in the raw recruit.  The thing is, this is far closer to Full Metal Jacket where the person with the authority just selects someone to heap abuse on until he destroys him.  In fact, Whiplash is actually worse than Full Metal Jacket in that respect because it’s not a film about the military; it’s set in a music school and the abusive relationship is between a teacher and a student.

Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) wants to be the best jazz drummer of his generation, if not one of the best ever.  He’s 19 and full of confidence.  He has no friends, nor does he want any.  “Abrasive” would be a diplomatic way to describe him; “asshole” would be the most straightforward way.

Andrew is at the best music school in the country, and this school has a legendary teacher named Terrence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons).  Everyone wants to be in his select band for competitions, but no one, and I mean, NO ONE, wants to have Fletcher’s attention pointed their way.

Andrew does get selected and Fletcher proceeds to play mind and dominance games with him.  Fletcher first praises him, and then tears him a new one right in front of the rest of the band – none of whom even dare look over at Fletcher and Andrew lest Fletcher start in on them.  Fletcher continues the being nice then being horrible cycle with Andrew.  For whatever reason Andrew keeps falling for it, perhaps because he’s so high on himself that when Fletcher praises him Andrew believes it.

Here is the thing: Fletcher’s actions go far beyond what could ever happen in the real world.  And even assuming a teacher could get away with physically hitting a student, trying to injure him by throwing a chair at him, making him play drums until his hands bleed, etc., these are not the actions of someone trying to motivate a person.  These are the actions of a psychopath, pure and simple.

Here is where I reject the message of the movie.  This is not a “love lift us up where we belong” story like an Officer and a Gentleman; this is a “someone’s probably gonna end up dead” story like Full Metal Jacket.

It’s easy to see why J. K. Simmons (best known to audiences as J. Jonah Jameson from the Raimi Spider-Man movies or as the Farmer’s Insurance TV commercial guy) was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.  It’s the same reason both Louis Gossett, Jr. and R. Lee Ermey got tons of recognition for playing the drill sergeants in An Officer and a Gentleman and Full Metal Jacket – they are magnetic on screen.  That much energy, anger, and yelling means you can’t help but watch everything they do.

Miles Teller had been specializing in movies for teens – Project X, 21 and Over, Insurgent, The Spectacular Now, etc. and he will be playing Reed Richards in the Fantastic Four reboot coming this summer.  He got good notice for his work in The Spectacular Now, lifting the film above its Young Adult novel roots.  Whiplash will only raise his critical status even more.

Those two actors dominate the film.  Paul Reiser has a few scenes as Andrew’s father, and Melissa Benoist a few scenes as Andrew’s potential girlfriend, but that’s it.

As you might expect there is a lot of music being played.  This isn’t a musical, but if you don’t like jazz, and especially jazz drumming, then you should be aware that there is a lot of it in the movie.  At one point there is something like a 10 minute long drum solo.  I couldn’t help but be reminded of the 17 minute long ballet sequence in An American in Paris (which won Best Picture, by the way.)

Although Whiplash received a Best Picture nomination, it is a long shot to win.  It also received a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination and there’s a story behind that.  This is an original story from Damien Chazelle.  He couldn’t get financing for it, though, so he shot a scene from the film with Simmons and used that as a demo to finally get the money to make his movie.  The Academy considers Whiplash to be based upon this previous short, though, hence the “adapted” screenplay, even though it was just a scene in the larger, already written story.

Whiplash is not a film in which I agree with the message, but many other people apparently do.  Watch it and make up your own mind on it.  It features a lot of jazz music, which is well done.  And it has a dominating performance from J. K. Simmons, the probable Oscar winner.  If any of these things sounds interesting then I recommend you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars


  1. I agree pretty much with everything you say here. I think this is a beautifully acted film with a great soundtrack that ultimately tells a story that I think is really ugly. "The ends justifies the means" isn't a philosophy I like to subscribe to.

    1. Thanks. I just read your review and we are pretty much on the same wavelength.