This is a movie about jazz for people who know fairly little about jazz. The less one knows about the history of the form, drumming, playing in a band or music schools, in fact, the more likely one is to be taken in by this off-key head game of a film. It's the second feature from Damien Chazelle on the subject of aspiring musicians.
Chazelle's first film, 2009's Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, told the story of an aspiring jazz trumpeter. In his Sundance Audience Award-winning follow-up, the writer-director tells the story of an aspiring jazz drummer. This time, instead of a tap-dancing girlfriend, he's paired his central character with a music instructor from hell.
Miles Teller (who does his own drumming) plays Andrew, a freshman at a fictional conservatory in Manhattan. As the movie opens, he bashes away in a practice room while a silhouetted figure listens outside the door. This turns out to be Fletcher, the institution's demon drill sergeant, feared and revered for his punishing perfectionism.
The role is so unlike anything J.K. Simmons has ever played on the big screen that I wondered whether he has an evil twin. Pumped up, head shaved and dressed in black trousers and tee, he suggests a Bizarro World Mr. Clean as he hurls insults — and chairs — spews ethnic slurs and slimes his quivering pupils with sexual and homophobic invective.
My guess is the movie's makers expect us to see Fletcher as a tough-but-fair teacher, taking to a new level the tradition of pictures like Stand and Deliver. Did I mention the part where he teaches Andrew a lesson in keeping time by slapping the boy's face in tempo? Are we inspired yet?
Teller's character dreams of being the next Buddy Rich and believes making first percussionist in Fletcher's prize-winning school ensemble is key. Think Mr. Holland's Opus meets Rocky. I'm serious.
Andrew practices until his hands bleed, numbs them in bags of ice and then practices some more, spattering his drums with crimson. He cuts loose his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) so he'll have more time to practice. And, in one particularly over-the-top sequence, he crawls from under a wrecked car and staggers to a concert, where he attempts to perform despite being injured and bloody. There wasn't this much blood in Gladiator.
What a weird film. Are we not supposed to notice that it's a valentine to an abusive relationship? Or that the kids are pitted against one another like they're attending the University of Hunger Games? Or that Chazelle plays fast and loose with the facts? Fletcher loves to tell the self-justifying saga of drummer Jo Jones motivating a young Charlie Parker by throwing a cymbal at his head after a mediocre solo. The truth is, Jones merely let a cymbal clang to the floor in a gesture of disapproval.
So why are abuse and untruth glorified in Whiplash? The relationship only gets more sick and manipulative as the crowd-pleasing climax arrives, leaving me wondering precisely what the crowd was so pleased about. Andrew's a better drummer by the end of the film, but students traditionally do improve over the course of a year.
What they don't traditionally do is undergo the ludicrous levels of physical and psychological mistreatment depicted here. That's not how it works. Unless, as Simmons himself has observed, "you're training Navy SEALs ... I'd rather have a pretty girlfriend," he told Iconic Interview, "than ... have my hands bleed all the time. I would have made a different choice." If you're thinking about spending time and money on Whiplash, you might want to make one, too.