There are no two words in the English language more harmful than whiplash. Wait, that’s one word.
by Thom Yee
I think I’ve only seen two movies where jazz is a significant element.
The first is Hard-Boiled, the last (and last truly good) John Woo Hong Kong action movie about two cops, one of whom is undercover, trying to bring down a criminal triad.
The movie features Chow Yun Fat’s Inspector Tequila, the main character, playing jazz flute in what is no doubt the coolest opening scene of any movie ever made, ever, ever, ever.
Take a look.
I’ll be right here when you’re finished.
So right after that opening, Tequila and his police partner pretty much massacre the restaurant you just saw them making their way up to in an attempt to break up a gun-smuggling deal, incidentally causing a massive loss of civilian life. Just in case you’re interested, you can watch that scene here:
Pretty sure vengeance (as in wilfully killing the main bad guy for killing your partner even though you already had him dead to rights) falls outside of acceptable police procedures, but I’ll let that one slide since the rest of the movie doesn’t make that much sense either (not that it wasn’t awesome).
The second movie I’ve seen where jazz is a significant element, obviously, is Whiplash. You may be wondering why I started this review talking about a twenty-three-year-old foreign film with extremely limited links to the topic at hand. You may even be considering that I had an ulterior motive of showing you guys violent action scenes under only the flimsiest of pretenses. You’d be right on that count, but you’d also be missing the greater point that I’m making. And that point is that jazz can be pretty great, so great that it still manages to stand out in a movie full of shootout scenes like the one you may have just watched.
Jazz gets a bad rap, especially lately, where it seems the big joke is that even people who say they like jazz have gotten pretty tired of it by now. I’m not going to say I know a lot about jazz, I’m not going to say I listen to jazz in moments of leisure, that I know who John Coltrane is or what Bird is (other than that it’s “the word”), but I will say that, when done right, jazz can be very entertaining… but it takes a lot — Presentation. Mood. Atmosphere. Movie stars. An excellent script. Oscar-worthy performances. Without those things… I’d be pretty bored too.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a 19-year-old jazz drummer, has recently been accepted into Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in the best city (New York) in the best nation (the United States) in the world (Earth) — he wants to be the best (obviously). Idolizing jazz drumming legends like Buddy Rich, Andrew is largely relegated to playing second fiddle (figuratively, not literally) to his other classmates until he is unexpectedly chosen by Schaffer’s infamous conductor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), to be his band’s alternate drummer. Though initially calm and inviting, Fletcher quickly stands revealed as an abusive and manipulative conductor, bringing many students to tears and berating young Andrew in front of the entire band. Determined to win Fletcher over and become the best drummer he can be, Andrew devotes his entire life to a near-fanatical level of practice, sacrificing everything he cares about — and… gradually he goes nuts (surprise!).
As a Chinaman, I know more than a little about the irrational need to be the best at a cultural level, but as a realist, I know far more about how foolhardy that is as a goal. It’s a numbers game if nothing else, and with more than seven billion people in the world (and counting), the odds of being the best in anything are pretty low (though, again, as a Chinaman, I also know that that numbers game also means that there’s probably more “world’s best” in my country of origin simply as a function of population ratios). Hell, you could become the world’s greatest murderer and probably still not make a significant dent in that seven billion (though at least then you would be the best at something). Objectively though, I think for a significant portion of the movie-going audience (and me included), Whiplash is at least the best of this year’s Best Picture Oscar contenders.
One thing I frankly can’t believe about Whiplash is how few people were [pre-Oscars announcements] aware of it and how hard it is to describe adequately. Everyone I talked to about it first asked me what it was and then what it was about, and then most of the time I couldn’t muster anything more than “… uh, it’s about a jazz drummer and his abusive teacher…,” and that sounded pretty underwhelming pretty much every time I said it. What really sells the film is the trailer itself, which fills you with the spirit and energy and attitude of what I can only assume jazz fans feel about jazz music at its best.
It’s easy to break down why Whiplash works so well as a movie. It’s got a great cast putting in stellar performances. It’s exciting and kinetic. It deals in themes that we all consider and empathize with. However, there are also times throughout Whiplash that I wondered just where the near-universal acclaim for the film was coming from. Often perfectly by-the-numbers and even more often abrasive, there’s also just something about the rhythm and tone of the film that carries it through a progression of events that are ordinary and expected, but also somehow compelling and shocking. However, it’s not until the movie’s very end that it really all comes together into more than a collection of psychologically stressful moments and overwhelmingly alarming practice sessions, and it’s in that moment that, for me, the film itself manages to transcend most of its 2014 Oscar competitors and where Whiplash, as a film, really sings (again, figuratively, not literally).
As Andrew progresses into his role, first as alternate drummer, then core, then back to alternate, then who knows for sure, he loses more and more of himself, directly insulting his family members, splitting up with his girlfriend (and it was being picked by Fletcher that gave him the confidence to ask her out in the first place), and even sacrificing his health. There are scenes of brutal intensity as you watch Andrew bring himself to a fevered sweat, drumming his heart out and plunging his bloodied hands in ice water to numb the pain of his practices, drawing a defining line between drumming (or really any endeavor) at its highest level, and clearing illustrating how much Andrew is completely on the edge of intended mastery or completely falling off the rails of reality. At one point he literally shows up to one of Fletcher’s performances with a face covered in blood and sweat, almost completely unaware of anything else but his performance. Even though Andrew ultimately realizes a measure of success by the film’s end, Whiplash is never so mundane or inelegant to suggest what cost or what path really led there.
Whiplash is a movie dominated by its starring performers, with veteran actor J.K. Simmons proving himself every bit the scene-stealer he was as J. Jonah Jameson, replacing comic timing with domineering intensity, and young Miles Teller keeping up with him at every step. In fact, Miles Teller does such a convincing job that I’m actually somewhat hopeful about his Reed Richards in the upcoming Fantastic Four revival attempt. He’s obviously missing some of Simmons’ sheer onscreen presence, but the strength of his portrayal combined with the intensity of his work arguably makes his the stronger performance. Probably not an argument I would make, but I have heard others say it and I don’t totally disagree.
I don’t know what it says about me that I never once thought of J.K. Simmons’ Fletcher as wrong or that I found his speech — capped by the movie’s most famous quote, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” — completely on point, but I never really once thought of Fletcher as a villain. Obviously he almost solely forms the film’s antagonistic corps, and obviously he holds all of the power that that position entails, but for the most part, and to the extent that I and he believe in his philosophies, he really is a mentor/instructor to Andrew throughout most of the film, no matter how badly that winds up going for Andrew. He may yell and scream, throw things, play psychological chess, and physically abuse his charges, but it’s all in the name of pushing people past their own limits, whether those limits are real or self-imposed. While I may talk about acting performances when I’m reviewing movies, I don’t usually think about actors consciously while I’m watching. J.K. Simmons, however, is one of the few actors I instantly take notice of whenever I see him. His turn as Fletcher is fully and completely realized and virtually impossible to imagine in anyone else’s hands, and Simmons is absolutely deserving of every award nomination he’s received.
Unfortunately, all of the above also means that any of the film’s lesser roles were relegated largely to utility. Michelle Benoist, apparently our future Supergirl, plays Andrew’s girlfriend, and it’s largely a thankless role as the two go through the first-date and getting-to-know-you phases and then pretty much straight to Andrew’s cold, clinical breakdown of why they shouldn’t date anymore. It’s not a distracting or unnecessary relationship, but it also has much less weight than it could have. For his part, Paul Reiser does a good job as Andrew’s father in a relationship where you do feel a strong (if comparatively forgettable) bond between the two. At the very least, I never once thought about Mad About You while he was on screen (an effort aided quite a bit by the fact that I never watched that show), and if you think it about it, he brought about as much to the role as he could have.
We’ve all had people try to teach us things. Teachers, instructors, parents, family members, friends, interventionists, concerned passersby — people who had an effect on the things we know and believe, people who shaped what we would come to know and not know, people who taught us something important, right or wrong. People who influenced the course of our lives. Sometimes even for the better. One of the most profound and hopefully rewarding elements of our lives is that the closest most of us will ever get to knowing or understanding ourselves will have to wait until some point near the end (if ever). I’m a firm believer that the universe is just too big to ever really get near an understanding of the meaning of life, and so it falls to each of us to at least dedicate ourselves to an understanding of our own. Without people to push us, prod us, and sometimes abuse us, a lot of us really wouldn’t have gotten anywhere in our lives. It’s easy to be complacent and self-satisfied, if for no other reason than “couch + snacks + TV + iPad = what else do you need?”, and when the idea that there’s something more, that there’s some place better, isn’t enough to stir us, it’s up to the Terrence Fletchers of the world to jar us from our slumbers. No matter how exciting or captivating or perfectly paced Whiplash may be, it’s greatest strength is that no matter how strongly you may feel one way or the other about its message, there is no completely wrong side to anything about what it says.
Whiplash Final Score: 9.5
On the Edge
- Raisinets in popcorn? That’s… that’s… a revelation! This is going to change the entire way I think about eating popcorn!
- Hope Andrew got the extra insurance on that rental car, ‘cause man that drive didn’t work out too well.
- Are nineteen-year-olds even allowed to rent cars?
- Now go watch Hard-Boiled!
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