“Whiplash” Review

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“No two words more dangerous than ‘Good job’.”

“Brutal,” “tense” and “draining” are rarely words used to describe musical films. But Whiplash, a critical darling that exploded from Sundance earlier this year, is all those adjectives and more: It’s brilliant. The film won the Grand Jury Prize out in snowy Utah, and by all rights it deserves its accolades. 

Whiplash follows Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now,) and his quest for musical glory. He’s Andrew Neyman, a jazz student at the prestigious Schaeffer Conservatory of Music in New York City. Neyman is low on the totem pole of jazz drummers, but with intense practice he hopes to “ones of the greats” à la Buddy Rich. Neyman is only half of the equation in Whiplash, though. The young artist is irrevocably shaped by his relationship with Terrence Fletcher, the fearsome conductor of Shaeffer’s best band. JK Simmons, who you might remember as the bombastic  J Jonah Jameson in Spider-Man, brings Fletcher to life with furious intensity. Simmons is on another planet when he abuses and degrades his  musicians for their tiniest errors. He claims that his sadism is based on a desire to motive. Only through humiliation will his students put in the work to improve. As he puts it, “There are no two words more dangerous in the English language than ‘Good job’.” Immediately, Neyman is caught in his web, using his fear to fuel his progress, even as the stress begins to tear him apart. 

While the movie thrives on melodrama, it’s an excellent example of cinema. Much of the exposition is told without dialogue, in the reactions of young Neyman to his environment. We sense his ambition, his fear and his determination to reach the next level. Well chosen details about his parents and his past help fill in the gaps of his motivations, but most of it is up front and visceral. Director Damien Chazelle milks his actors for what they’ve got, and brings the whole thing together with taut editing. The fast pace jazz ties it all together, surely winning over people who aren’t traditional fans of the genre. Just check out the title piece:

Post-hype, the movie has come under fire for its inaccurate portrayal of musicians and jazz. In that discussion, I think I can contribute some points. I have played drums in a jazz band, and I have been humiliated in a musical environment. Critics argue that good jazz is more than just music played fast and loud (key concerns in the film) and that success is based on years of work. Admittedly, the movie rests on a few important concerts to determine the character’s future, but I appreciate the the stakes are laid clearly. Furthermore, Slate complained that an apocryphal tale about Charlie Parker (seminal jazz saxophonist) was told incorrectly. As the story goes, embarrassment drove Parker to practice, whereas Fletcher claims it was the physical fear of a cymbal thrown at his head. Perhaps Fletcher intentionally distorts the story to fit his own ideology, which is far more terrifying than the filmmakers disrespecting one of music’s iconic players. Finally, naysayesr see the movie as detrimental to the image of musicians, painting them as obsessive and self-absorbed.

My first thought: did you watch the same movie as me?

Whiplash is about two people and their terrible, negative relationship. The writers chose jazz because music is a great foundation for the discussion of talent versus practice. If Neyman wanted to be an NFL quarterback and Fletcher was his coach, would people complain that athlete’s are misrepresented as being obsessive? In criticizing the function of jazz in the movie, they miss the reasoning behind the themes. Fletcher and Neyman pervert jazz because they’re on self destructive paths. 

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Take a chill pill, perhaps.

The jazz of the film isn’t very realistic, it’s stylistic. As an audience, we physically react to music that demands to be fast and loud. Horror films have long used this principle to create scares. It works on the character’s too. I immediately realized  that Neyman struggles as a drummer cause he’s too damn tense. The best way to play fast is relax. But he can’t relax, his greatest flaw. Nor can Fletcher, who sees himself as the messiah of jazz instruction. He’s a teacher from Hell. Anyone who’s been embarrassed by an authority figure has a stake in hating Fletcher. Critics who are afraid that Whiplash will tarnish the image of jazz needn’t be. Obsession and ambition are universal; crazy conductors and mentally unstable students aren’t. If you’d like a glimpse at the dark side of motivation, go see Whiplash and don’t forget a change of clothes.

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