Of the films nominated for Best Picture this year, “Whiplash” was the outlier, as it was the one that didn’t fit the mold of recent Best Picture winners. It wasn’t a biopic from a historically volatile period in time, and it didn’t attempt to make any grand social commentary. It’s just a solidly made film that unfolds beautifully with two dynamite opposing lead actors.
It was good to see JK Simmons get recognition at the Oscars for his work in this film. He’s long been a great character actor, but he hasn’t had that dramatic, explosive performance that would get the Academy’s attention. But that’s exactly what he finally got in “Whiplash.”
This film is about a young, aspiring jazz drummer just entering music school who is ready to rock ‘n’ roll (not really, there’s a poster in the film that says something to the effect of, musicians without talent play rock). But he’s not just any drummer. Andrew (Miles Teller) aspires to not just be great, but one of the greats in music history, and he’s willing to do anything it takes to attain that status. But standing in his way is the nasty son of a bitch instructor, Fletcher, (Simmons) who is basically a cross between Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant in “Full Metal Jacket” and Darth Vader wielding a conducting baton rather than a lightsaber. Whenever he enters a room, everyone snaps to attention like it’s boot camp. He’s even dressed all in black.
But Fletcher doesn’t want Andrew to fail. On the contrary, Fletcher wants all of his students to become great musicians. But if they aren’t willing to meet his demands, that’s his indicator that they are not the legendary performers he’s looking for. He tears one of his students a new one for playing off-key. The student isn’t off-key anyway, but Fletcher intimidates him into believing he was the offending player, and the fact that he doesn’t realize this is bad enough.
But Andrew’s struggles go deeper than just in class. He’s one of those types who in some ways seems to have supreme confidence in himself, but pushing him gives way to deeply rooted insecurity. That’s evident when he asks a young lady out on a date and doesn’t realize she’s joking when she tells him he needs to go away.
A dinner scene with his family gets to the root of Andrew’s problems. It’s obvious that they are far more impressed with Andrew’s brother because he’s on his college football team, rather than in Andrew’s musical achievements. It takes a music family to understand the heart of a musician, and his family is as far away from that as can be. Andrew rightly takes offense at their apathy toward his passion, and it’s an unenviable position to be in.
But don’t think this is any underdog success story. Teller imbues Andrew with an arrogance and a lack of self-awareness that made it such a joy for Simmons to slap him repeatedly. When he attains success over his fellow drummers/rivals, he accepts his throne with such shit-eating smugness that the audience can’t help but root against this guy. He’s not at all likable, but as his blood feud with Fletcher builds to a breaking point, the viewer can’t help but wait with enthusiasm for the inevitable train wreck.
And when it hits, it really explodes, and it doesn’t disappoint. This is a masterfully crafted film by debuting director Damien Chazzelle, and it shows a whole lot of promise for his future. From the opening with Andrew sitting in the dark speedily hammering out a complex rhythm to the off-the-charts finale, Chazzelle has composed a sharply focused masterpiece that shows off his skills. It kind of came out of nowhere, as this is an incredible first effort, but also because his other movie credits include only writing for a pair of poor-looking horror/thriller movies. On the other hand, his experience in those genres works surprisingly well with this indie drama.
It’s a monologue Fletcher delivers toward the end of the film that raises some interesting commentary on today’s American society. He tells Andrew that he was hoping to find the next jazz prodigy, like Charlie Parker. But he believes that the younger generation is too coddled. He says the most harmful words in the English language are “good job.” That’s why he’s so harsh on his students. He thinks the only way to give them the drive to succeed and weed out the ones who aren’t dedicated enough is to push them to their limits.
He makes an interesting point, though a poor one. Are young people given more today than previous generations, and is that keeping them from succeeding in life? Firstly, even if they are, much more is also expected of them. There probably are kids in some segments of society whose parents give them the world and ask nothing of them, so they do end up becoming spoiled, lazy, and entitled and more interested in hearing people tell them “good job” rather than actually succeeding. The thing is, those children probably belong to the upper class who are given a lot by their parents, and so when they grow up, they expect the world to fall down at their feet. And they are probably afforded a more extended adolescence because once they decide to get serious, if they ever do, they can always go to their parents for help.
Everyone else, however, is more concerned about trying to get by rather than being a superstar. Sure, that opportunity is supposedly promised to anyone who is dedicated and works hard enough, but that level of success is rare. There are always rags-to-riches stories in the news, but the stories of those who worked hard and didn’t get the right opportunities are less commonly told because no one wants to hear that. As a result, society perceives those people who don’t succeed as spoiled, lazy, and entitled because of that myth.
The relationship between Fletcher and Andrew is similar to that of an abusive parent and a child. Some parents see their children as an extension of themselves and want to live vicariously through them because they see their own lives as less successful than they had envisioned. So they push their children to succeed. Some children respond to the pressure well and thrive, and others can’t handle it and would rather find their own way in life through whatever means. Either way, that leaves scars on those people that last throughout their lives. Andrew seems to be more neglected by his parents rather than being pushed too hard, but he exhibits that insecurity that often stems from parents’ disappointment in their children. But Fletcher pushes his buttons in a way that drives him to work harder because he believes so much in that dream he has of being one of the greatest. Perhaps Andrew is craving that extremely aggressive attention Fletcher gives him.
That approach toward motivation might help some people to become more driven. But what Fletcher doesn’t understand is that other approaches can work for people too. Having positive support from friends and family can drive people to succeed as well, as they feel they have the freedom to find their own paths and their own goals. Different strokes for different folks.
Then again, Andrew is a little shit and it’s pretty understandable that he doesn’t have any friends, as he shuts himself off from everyone for the sake of his own success.
Ironically, the whole idea of competition, comparing yourself to others, and technical skill over musicality runs counter to the essence of jazz. The great jazz musicians played based on feeling and bonding between musicians. It doesn’t hurt the movie, but it makes the goals Fletcher and Andrew are attempting to achieve seem even more vain and nebulous. If your goal is simply to be remembered for something, it’s kind of lacking. Finding your passion in life is probably a better goal to work toward, as passionate people are the ones who do truly great things. Michael Jordan was a great basketball player, but whenever he talks about playing, he always sounds bitter and resentful toward his teammates and fellow athletes rather than happy about the success he achieved.
Another thing about jazz is that it originated in black communities, and the art form rose to prominence through black artists. The movie is about white performers and white families. Certainly white people can play jazz, but movies about jazz and music school aren’t particularly common, and so it really seems like it’s missing some of the purpose of jazz if it is only about white people. There are black people in the movie, but none of them really get to be characters, and so they are basically scenery. It seems like a significant misstep to not even write a black character into the movie. If the movie is about white entitlement, then that’s one thing, but shouldn’t there at least be a nod to the folks who invented that form of music, and more than just the acknowledgement of their existence? This isn’t exactly Hollywood either, it’s a low-budget film made by a rookie director, but Chazzelle has quite a bit to learn about inclusiveness and acknowledgement of diversity.
Despite that flaw, “Whiplash” is one great intense film that should hook most people and trigger horrible memories in those who were music students, or at least aspired to be. It’s a battle of wills, and the audience is waiting to witness the explosion when it happens, but it ends on a somewhat unexpectedly high note (though whether it’s really a positive ending would be up for debate). It was good to see the Academy give this movie some attention, as it doesn’t seem like the stereotypical Oscar movie. As 2014 was an excellent year for movies (though it wasn’t truly reflected in the Best Picture candidates), “Whiplash” was among the best, though not as great as “Birdman” or “Boyhood.” But JK Simmons got a well-deserved Oscar, and it will be exciting to see how Chazzelle develops as a director in the future.