“Whiplash” and the Fine Line Between Genius and Madness

We’re going to make this an impromptu Theme Week (we can call it Rust Is Just Right Goes to the Movies if absolutely necessary, but we’d rather not formalize this detour) and continue looking at films from last year, pivoting from our praise for the score for Birdman to analyzing the themes of Whiplash.  In our piece yesterday, we claimed that 2014 had few great films but a lot of solid ones, and though I would end up slotting Whiplash into the latter category, there are several scenes that nearly elevate the film into the “great” category.  Even with that caveat in mind, I would still recommend that anyone who enjoys the creative process or just watching fantastic musicians perform amazing technical feats should check it out.

The film delves into the twisted professor/student relationship that develops between dictatorial jazz instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) and ambitious drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), who is determined to do whatever it takes to be remembered as a jazz legend.  Simmons is rightfully receiving Oscar buzz for his portrayal, even if it is in some ways a variation of his usual schtick, and Teller keeps pace with the veteran and delivers a remarkable performance of his own.  It’s a story whose beats should be familiar to most, playing off an extreme version of the mentor/protégé relationship, but the actors elevate the material by digging deep and finding real nuances in their roles, often subverting expectations and reversing course at the drop of a hat (especially Simmons, who can alternate between sympathetic and terrifying in an instant but remain believable throughout).

For the musicians in the audience, there’s a real joy to be had in watching the actors go through the nuts-and-bolts of performing jazz at an extremely high level, and see the sacrifices that each player makes for what ends up being for little recognition.  It was an amusing game on its own to see how much of Teller’s playing lined up with the soundtrack, and it was a marvel to realize how much preparation an actor went through to convincingly play drums at such a high level.  Though the movie should probably have been titled “Caravan” because of the importance of the double-time swing section in that standard to the plot, it was also great to see other classics get some recognition as well.

As much fun as it is to just watch the pure musicianship on display, the film’s greatest strength is its ambivalent approach to the central conflict.  While it’s clear from several moments in the film that Fletcher’s methods to coax “genius” from his students go far beyond what is acceptable behavior, it’s the fact that the movie doesn’t paint him as merely an antagonist to Andrew that is truly thought-provoking.  As the film progresses, one begins to wonder if Andrew is complicit in his own downward spiral, that his belief in an anecdote about a cymbal being chucked at the head of Charlie Parker was really what created the legend of “Bird” instead of practice and talent is as much to blame as Fletcher’s antics.  The movie doesn’t necessarily paint this as an internal struggle, but is instead one that the audience must confront.  The climax of the film is a show-stopping drum solo, and while it in some ways validates Fletcher’s brutal tactics, they still have irrevocably damaged Andrew at a fundamental level.

Or, if you don’t want to get too philosophical about the movie, just enjoy it for all the pyrotechnic drum solos (even if realistically they are a bit too showy).  Then go home and watch some old Buddy Rich videos on YouTube.

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