There are two mistaken tropes about artistic genius that suffuse the screenplay of Whiplash: one is that it is enhanced by suffering and the other is that it borders on madness. This is a movie about a young drummer determined to gain immortality through his dedication to excellence; it is also a movie about a teacher rationalizing his own sadistic psychoses by pretending that abject humiliation is an effective tool for weeding out the merely talented from the truly great. It’s Rocky meets The Great Santini within the academic halls of the best music school in America.
Andrew arrives at Shaffer Conservatory (read Julliard) as a naive young man, ill at ease with girls and anxious to gain the favor of Fletcher, the charismatic teacher who heads the prestigious jazz band. Played by J.K. Simmons as the most tightly wound marine sargeant since Full Metal Jacket, the teacher gives Andrew the nod, inviting him to participae in this inner sanctum. From this point on, we cringe as Andrew and other students suffer the consequences of Fletcher’s abuse - staccato tirades of vulgar, homophobic invenctive mingled with the outing of each individual’s personal weakness or tragedy. The phoniness of this plot point can best be illustrated by referencing what’s happened to football coaches and owners of basketball teams in our politically correct culture. Racism and homophobia are the ultimate sins - the punishments for these “hate crimes” are more severe than for theft, drug abuse or plain physical assault. The chair-hurling, gay-bashing Fletcher would last at a prestigious music school for as much time as it takes for students to video his outbursts and post them online.
The plot further stretches credulity as Andrew races to an important competition, enduring various complications involving transportation, culminating in a car accident from which he crawls out dazed, covered in blood, yet able to run to the auditorium and pick up his sticks. Apparently, the larger than life Fletcher has no fears of liability for the condition of a disheveled, disoriented student who has clearly suffered head wounds - no one asks what happened and no one intervenes to get him medical assistance. There are some movies in which realism is beside the point; we don’t need it in action films, Judd Apatow films or any movie with Liam Neeson or Denzel Washington. Whiplash, however, is rooted in realistic detail, down to the idiosyncratic sprinkling of raisinets on popcorn - a favorite of Andrew’s father, played by Paul Reiser, and the competitive one-upsmanship contest revealed at a family dinner. This movie asks us to take these characters seriously, care about their lives and believe their self-reported “philosophies” of success. Yet absolutely nothing in the plot rings true to the rules of the game today.
I won’t spoil the climactic, final scene by describing what happens except to say that it manages to exceed the quotient of disbelief already mentioned. Whiplash is a sophomoric attempt to romanticize artistic agony as a pre-requisite for brilliant self-expression. It is also a vehicle for two cracker-jack performances that chew the scenery with scary effectiveness. Miles Teller makes an impressive acting debut as the young drummer and J.K. Simmons deserves an Oscar nod for this acting plum - his hand gestures alone are worth the price of admission. It’s a movie that has three elements of arousal - psychological and physical violence and music - a trifecta that holds our attention. Too bad that none of it makes sense.
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