Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a gifted jazz drummer at New York’s Shaffer Conservatory. He yearns to join the ranks of the great jazz musicians and comes to believe that the powerful music teacher, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), will lead him to the path of greatness.
When Fletcher recruits Neiman to his prestigious jazz band, Neiman finds his bullying and manipulative manner of teaching more than he can handle. The clash of bruised egos and buried resentment, coupled with their shared passion for jazz, leads to a tense conflict between mentor and apprentice and makes any collaboration between them poisoned with the threat of violence.
In making movies about artists, writers and directors run into a few problems. On one hand they have to convince the audience that the designated hero is talented in their chosen medium. On the other hand, that chosen medium, if it’s obscure like jazz, will require explanations as to why it’s worth giving up a stable career for. It all comes down to that awkward conversation with your parents, “No, I’m not going to study Chartered Accounting, I’m going to become an Olympic Figure Skater”. Such movies often end up attracting audiences by putting in elements of melodrama and incongruous violence. Black Swan, by Darren Aronofsky, used this method to good effect and it became a ballet movie for people who don’t care for ballet.
Whiplash by Damien Chazelle, likewise, fills the market demand of a jazz movie for people who don’t care about jazz. The film pivots on the assumption that its hero, Andrew Neiman is a genius and that his Mentor, the demonic Fletcher will take him to greatness, a familiar riff on the story of Karna-Parashurama from the Mahabharata, where the student is punished by his guru for his excessive devotion and rote-obedience of orders.
Neiman is not a sympathetic hero, he hardly interacts with his fellow jazz musicians and spends most of the time waiting for his turn rather than keyed into the team’s performance. The smug smiles he shows at every public favor Fletcher bestows on him in class and the self-righteous manner in which he lords over his greatness to his family and his girlfriend makes him hard to relate to. The lack of a compelling character dynamic means that much like the otherwise well-made Black Swan, the real development comes not from the character or the plot, but from moments of shocking violence, which like in any melodrama rears its head to provide cheap and easy effects.
J.K. Simmons, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, gives a charismatic performance as Fletcher, whose abrupt mood shifts changes the atmosphere of a sterile music studio to that of a torture chamber. Simmons has long been a commendable actor with a gift for comic timing and he is genuinely menacing and creepy in the insidious love-hate breakdown of his students. Miles Teller is less commanding as Andrew Neiman, the Hero, possessing an easy likeability but lacking any real edge to convince us that he’s a super self-sacrificing artist, while the supporting actors, Paul Reiser as the hero’s father and Melissa Benoist as the girlfriend do more with limited material and screen-time.
Damien Chazelle’s approach to shooting jazz performance tends to be over-dramatic and closer to that of the music video, in that the editing simulates the beats of the music, there are unnecessary pans to-and-fro from conductor and drums. The camera movements are overbearing and keyed to the major movements in a rather telegraphed and obvious fashion. In other words, it shoots jazz like a rock performance. It contrasts poorly with the more subtle manner jazz is visualised in films like Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown or Clint Eastwood’s Bird.
In either case, Chazelle should be commended for his ambition, since there are very few good movies about music. By that, I don’t mean musicals nor do I mean films with musicians as actors playing their own work (The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night). I mean films with musicians as serious dramatic subjects, dealing with their passion for art and the pressures of performance. Movies that deal with why people dedicate their lives to music, despite the uncertainty of career expectations, the constant expectations of performance and the demands it makes on their family and love lives. Whiplash does evoke this theme and dramatise it well despite all its regrettable missteps in narrative and characterisation.
The writer is programmer, Lightcube Film Society