“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.”
The above encapsulates the mindset of Terence Fletcher, a sadistic, uncompromising, drill sergeant-like music instructor, an imposing presence laced with an increasingly appalling dark wit. The image of a simple black t-shirt around a muscular frame creates a physicality that is matched by very few, and Fletcher utilizes both that physical presence and his biting words to rip apart his students psychologically, to push them to the very limits of their abilities. This movie, as a result, becomes 1 hour and 45 minutes of sheer intensity that rivals the very best thrillers.
One of the major elements of many thrillers is a laser focus, and Damien Chazelle accomplishes that in Whiplash. His film is structured like a piece of music in and of itself, with ebbs and flows, with crescendos and fortes that accentuate the journey our main character, Andrew Neyman, experiences. The constant music rehearsals and performances are staples of any film about an aspiring musician, but Chazelle transforms each of these settings into metaphorical battlegrounds, ramping up the unpredictability as the runtime moves toward its close. Each scene becomes both an image of personal growth and of mental breakdown, and the atmosphere that’s created throughout is a testament to the work of the production team: Chazelle, the director. Sharone Meir, the cinematographer. Tom Cross, the editor. Justin Hurwitz, the composer. The first scene of the movie–Andrew in a dark practice room, with the sound of a drumstick hitting the drum gradually building up–is a fantastic indication of what’s to come.
The brilliant production team works in tandem with the actors, and the amount of praise that should be heaped upon these actors is never-ending. J.K. Simmons gives a tour de force performance, taking what could’ve easily been a caricature and turning it into a complex and terrifying human being, and he says just as much while simply standing there as he does while he’s yelling in someone’s ear. He can be a paternal, carefree guy, but in one swift turn, he can take what you’ve told him and slam it right back into your face. Miles Teller, so wonderful in last year’s The Spectacular Now, brings much of the charm here that he brought to that movie, and he expertly plays both the awkward, harmless kid and the ambitious, yet arrogant, drummer who is willing to push back against Fletcher.
The film itself also walks a fine line in its portrayal of Andrew’s development through Fletcher’s methods, bringing up questions about perfection and practice and control and emotional abuse and art. Fletcher has the viewpoint he has partly because he probably takes some semblance of pleasure from his manipulations, but also because of his feelings of nostalgia, because he, as stated, is doing what he does in order to find the next Buddy Rich or the next Charlie Parker. Fletcher brings up the story of Charlie Parker developing into the musician he became due to Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at his head partly because he possibly truly wants to find the next “great”, but also partly because he must justify the way he’s treating his students (there’s another scene that I won’t talk about until the spoiler section, but it’s a great example of this attempted justification). Andrew is someone who develops professionally because of his teacher, but is also stunted emotionally because of the techniques. Andrew’s drive is intensified because of those techniques, but he also begins to take on some of Fletcher’s characteristics, as exemplified when he–even if he may be making some great points–insults his family members at a dinner party as he’s defending his craft. His answer to the question “Isn’t art all subjective?” is an emphatic “No”.
These ideas all build off one another beautifully, and there is a palpable energy to the film that crescendos to a stunning final act. Chazelle’s camera work is intimate and energetic throughout, and he perfectly captures pain and exhaustion through close-ups of blood or sweat. Most importantly, however, he captures talent and art. He captures the very essence of a man who, if all else ceases to exist in the world, will continue to be a drummer, pounding away and honing his craft as his hands bleed out onto the floor. Maybe the idea of a “great” still exists, and maybe, true art will transcend the constraints implemented by a man who is still trying to recapture the past. The rhythm of “Whiplash” will then be set free.
-This will probably be entered into the “comedy/musical” category at awards shows. Ha…
–Now, about the rest of the cast: the two notable stand outs are Paul Reiser as Andrew’s dad and Melissa Benoist as Nicole, Andrew’s girlfriend; they’re both great. The former serves as a direct contrast to Fletcher, and the latter serves to emphasize the scope of Andrew’s ambition when he pushes her away (nice contrast between two interactions over meals). Nicole seems like an afterthought because that’s exactly what she becomes for Andrew, and a masculine environment is the norm in this film; at the beginning, a girl is described as “first chair just because she’s cute”.
– “Not quite my tempo.” “It is my part and I lend it out.” The thing about a band is that everyone should work in tandem, but there are many quotes like these peppered throughout that highlight the very personal natures of Andrew’s and Fletcher’s stories and the intense competition in the band.
-Fletcher is right when he says that “good job” can be dangerous. The film in no way endorses his abuse of his students, though.
-The writers must have had a ton of fun coming up with Fletcher’s insults. Most of them I’ve never heard before.
-Damien Chazelle is a drummer himself, and the film consists of actual musicians. This was undoubtedly helpful.
-Simmons and Teller need to win something for this.
-Seriously, that final sequence. Man.
-The scene that I didn’t want to talk about in the review: Fletcher making up the story about Casey dying in a car crash, when in reality, Casey hanged himself. As I said, this is an example of the way he justifies his actions: by avoiding the consequences. Also, great work by Simmons there as well; you actually start to feel for him.
-On that note: Fletcher makes up that Casey died in a car crash, and later on, Andrew actually gets into a car crash, which leads to Fletcher losing his job. The implication is that Fletcher is also paying for the harm he inflicted upon Casey.
-We have Nicole and Andrew being nostalgic during their first date, then only Andrew doing so later when he calls her and offers another pizza date. She’s moved on. This also ties in with the themes about nostalgia with regards to Fletcher.
-This is seriously an unpredictable movie. It avoids almost all cliches, and the cut to black after he says “Tell me what to say” fooled me. The writers essentially write themselves into a hole during the film on purpose, then write themselves right out of it with gusto.
-Andrew attacking Fletcher is a culmination of all his frustrations, and it directly counteracts Fletcher’s physicality.
-Finally, that final scene. How glorious it is. When Fletcher goes, “I knew it was you,” it hits you: this is going to be an amazing scene. Then, Andrew starts playing on his own and becoming his own conductor, and the scene is elevated to a whole new level of awesome. The camera work and the editing here are impeccable, and the smash cut to black is the icing on the cake.
Also, the point is clear: while the film is not denying that Fletcher had a profound impact on Andrew’s skill, it also suggests that, because Andrew breaks off on his own, there can be greatness when you break the rigid confines of the past. The scene starts as a battle, but eventually becomes a collaboration of sorts.
Photo credit: Whiplash, Blumhouse Productions