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Whiplash


More a matter of motion sickness, I'm afraid.  Miles Teller thrashes his drum kit till he's a sweaty, bloody mess.  J.K.  Simmons gesticulates, glowers and spews vitriol in a near scat.  All the while, writer and director Damien Chazelle observes all this like an over-excited spectator at a tennis match.  So it goes in Whiplash, from the first to last frenetic touch of drum sticks upon snare.

Young Andrew Neiman (Teller)  is a first-year student at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York City.  First we hear then eventually espy the solitary drummer down a hallway, before the camera proceeds into the rehearsal room in which he is working a drum kit in determined fashion.  In steps the imposing figure of Terence Fletcher (Simmons), causing Andrew to stop abruptly and stand.  "You know what I do?," the older man asks.  Yes, the young man desperate for greatness and fame (if not necessarily in that order), is quite aware that Fletcher conducts the conservatory's elite studio band, just a step or two from the big time, whether Lincoln Center or elsewhere.  Fletcher asks Andrew why he stopped playing.  When the drummer resumes and finally finishes, the conductor says, "Did I say to start playing again?.... I asked you why you stopped playing.  Your version of an answer was to turn into a wind-up drummer monkey."  And that's just a puckish kiss on the check compared to what follows between teacher and student.

Asked and answered:  J.K. Simmons, heeding the
 direction to make Terence Fletcher "a monster, a gargoyle, an animal"
in Whiplash.
Writer and director Damien Chazelle starts, in a sense, with quite a lot in Whiplash.   There is jazz itself, after all. Notions about ambition and its fine border with obsession.  What it takes to realize the greatest achievement from raw talent.  And the director has the talents of Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.  All of these things, sadly, reduced and consumed within a feverish story which only occasionally lapses into lucidity.  It's certainly a fever with which audiences and critics alike have been happily afflicted.  Unfortunately, all that enthusiasm makes the overheated action of Whiplash no less ridiculous.        

Mr. Chazelle was apparently an aspiring jazz drummer himself in high school.  The character of Terenece Fletcher, in turn, finds some basis in a conductor with whom Chazelle had to deal while a student.  The director says that he realized early on that professional music wasn't for him.  As for the real conductor, now dead, Chazelle owns that he wasn't nearly so difficult.  And heaven knows there's little potential for cheap drama to be found in that prosaic circumstance.  So, we turn the young drummer into a near-automaton.  J.K. Simmons, meanwhile, was instructed to "...take it past what you think the normal limit would be."  The actor was further told by his director that "I don’t want to see a human being on-screen anymore. I want to see a monster, a gargoyle, an animal."  Clearly, Mr. Simmons is good at taking direction, however dubious.

Nice guns, dude.  J.K. Simmons as the man in black in Whiplash.
Thus, Terence Fletcher:  a kind of Bobby Knight of jazz; bullying, sanctimonious, self-justified. Although Knight at his most expressive would be hard pressed to match the stream of invective that pours forth from the frequently angry and agape mouth of Terence Fletcher.  This verbal abuse often takes the form of gay slurs, as when the conductor torments one of Neiman's competitors, Carl:  "Well what do we have here? Gay Pride himself.  This is not a Sinead O’Connor concert, Tanner.  I am sorry to inform you we will not be serving Baked Alaska and Cosmopolitans tonight. Now why don’t you try playing faster than you give fucking hand jobs?? One! One! One! One!  OFF THE FUCKING KIT!!!"  Andrew Neiman and his rhythm section brethren are the recipients of most of their conductor's fury, the woeful trailer park to the unavoidable tornado of his vituperation.  Whether this is due to the importance of the tempo-setting position in his band, or a past torment doled out to young Fletcher by some drummer or another, the audience leaves none the wiser.  

In the halls and practice rooms of Shaffer, Fletcher operates with impunity, students and faculty alike cowed into downcast obedience before the intimidating man.  Some time after their first meeting, Andrew is part of a group practice, merely turning the pages for the drummer in first chair, when Fletcher bursts into the room, slamming the door and usurping the teacher, who meekly withdraws.  Like a sultan procuring fresh bodies for his harem, the studio band conductor allows all of the students about a nanosecond of playing time before dismissing them with contempt.   Despite his apparent rejection, Andrew is selected.

J.K. Simmons appears to be having a grand time playing furiously against his usual gruff but amiable type.  And he may well walk off the stage at the Dolby (nee Kodak) Theater in a few weeks with one of those gold statuettes.  Good for him.  But let's not confuse what it takes to embody a cartoon character and the subtlety required to animate a complex human being.  Simmons plays all the notes he asked to play, blaring and occasionally hushed, but it's a mighty narrow chromatic range within which he's asked to work.


Similarly confined is Miles Teller, one of our more promising young film actors.  There's little to be seen of the appealing, responsive talent so apparent in the coming of age film, The Incredible Now (2013), or even his relatively few scenes in John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole (2010).  Damien Chazelle has spoken in interview of the difficulty of getting Hollywood types interested in a film that might have unsympathetic characters at its center.  What he doesn't seem to realize is that Terenece Fletcher and Andrew Neiman are not characters, they're a couple of traits flung at actors who are asked to create whole beings.  If you've seen The Incredible Now, you know the complexity of which Miles Teller is capable.  He certainly commits to the role of Andrew Neiman, body as much as soul.   But like men in the gym who throw a lot of weight around with little sense of technique or direction... there's a lot of yelling, a lot of sweat, but little accomplished in the end.  

This snare drum has seconds to live.
Miles Teller in Whiplash.
Damien Chazelle's story does slow down just enough on a couple of occasions to approach insight.  A first date scene between Andrew and Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a young woman he meets at the movie theater frequented by him and his father (Paul Reiser), captures the staccato progress of their (or any such) conversation.  There's also the natural prick of defensiveness on the part of Nicole when the two compare schools and plans, the intensely-focused Andrew attending "the best music school in the country," while Nicole is without major at Fordham.

One of the few exchanges between Andrew Neiman and Terrence Fletcher that isn't patently ridiculous occurs relatively late in Whiplash, when the fortunes of both characters have suffered a major reversal.  Andrew wanders into a jazz club and is transfixed at the sight of "special guest" Terrence Fletcher at the keyboard.  The two have what seems to be a surprisingly frank, almost warm conversation, albeit one that focuses mainly on the older man.  Fletcher, with relatively calm, explains and justifies his philosophy of teaching.  This rationalization boils down to - with apologies to the late Barry Goldwater - extremism in the pursuit of the next Charlie Parker is no vice.  It's not a great scene, but in a film that expends so much hot air, manufactures so much empty drama on the subject of tempo, it's a reminder that action is defined as much by relative stillness as speed.

Unfortunately, Mr. Chazelle urges along his plot like some empty-headed beatnik who thought Bebop was about nothing more than breakneck speed.  Uh, sorry daddy-o.  The fire breathing and even chair tossing tyrant of a teacher is absurd enough.  But Chazelle conducts his ensemble faster and faster into laughable cacophony.  Andrew speeds in a rental car to make a recording date for the studio band.  One certainly expects an accident to ensue, and so it does - a nasty t-bone of a crash (and for once, one of Mr. Chazelle's intense close-ups actually conveys something meaningful).   This would be enough to temporarily slow the Terminator, but the determined drummer stumbles bloody and dazed to the nearby studio and takes his place on the drum kit, only giving up when his left hand can no longer hold its stick.  Not to mention the likely matter of concussion.  Poor Andrew is a bit like the knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who keeps fighting, keeps urging on his fellow combatant even as his limbs are lopped off one by one.

Though more physically credible, the film's final and climactic scenes in Carnegie Hall manage to surpass all that have preceded them in utter implausibility.  No small feat, that.  The contrivances, reversals and ultimate resolution that take place couldn't be more absurd unless Terrence Fletcher and Andrew Neiman ended up in bed together.  At which point the conductor would probably still be fulminating, as he did to his student during their initial day in studio band rehearsal:  "Now are you a rusher, are you a dragger, or are you going to be ON MY FUCKING TIME?!"

Amid the almost universal acclaim, at least a couple of critics have pointed out that Whiplash is not really a good jazz film, not really a jazz film at all.  The Chicago Reader seems especially proud of this revelation.  And true enough, there is little feeling of any depth for jazz in the film.  Typical of the superficial treatment of the music and its history is an anecdote twice shared by Terence Fletcher about Charlie Parker.  He tells young Neiman that the drummer Jo Jones once hurled a cymbal at Parker's head due to his out of sync tempo.  Young Parker then went off, practiced for a year and returned to stun the world with a solo that helped immortalize him.  It's relatively common knowledge among jazz afficionados that this didn't really happen.  Jo Jones merely dropped a cymbal to the floor to embarrass Parker off the bandstand.  And the year between the the cymbal episode and Parker's historic solo at a 1937 jam session probably involved more than the saxophonist learning to play as fast as he could.


For a man with a background in jazz, a friend of numerous musicians, Damaien Chazelle demonstrates not the least notion how to film the music in performance.  The camera doesn't move quite so randomly as was the case in his feature debut Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009; another film that manages to despoil multiple art forms), but rarely have close-ups and rapid editing revealed so little about their subject.

Dwelling too much on the jazz reduction in Whiplash is to miss the larger point.  Whiplash is not so much as bad jazz film as a bad film, period.  The film is simply ludicrous.

There are, of course, good jazz films to be seen.  Betrand Tavernier's Round Midnight, starring the great Dexter Gordon, is not a bad place to start.  But as it happens, there was an American film doing its modest rounds in the past few months, just as Whiplash was whipping  audiences into a frenzy. This Jeff Preiss' Low Down, about the late jazz pianist Joe Albany.  Low Down stars the ever-excellent John Hawkes as Albany and Elle Fanning as his daughter Amy-Jo.  Based on Ms. Albany's memoir about the ups and downs of life with her father, Low Down is not a great film, but one whose feeling for character, place and especially its music far, far surpasses anything seen and heard in Whiplash.  By all means, check it out in addition to Whiplash.  Better yet, check it out instead.  

Sorry Mr. Chazelle, not my tempo.  

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