Isn’t playing music supposed to be fun?
19-year-old Shaffer Conservatory student Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) has a dream, and it’s a pretty ambitious one: Become the best jazz drummer since Buddy Rich. Though this isn’t what you’d expect every normal young adult to dream of aspiring to one day, Andrew is different and decides that if he’s going to take his drumming-career seriously, he needs to get rid of any and all distractions in his life. That means he has to spend less time with his failed-author dad (Paul Reiser), break things off with his lonely girlfriend (Melissa Benoist), and most of all, practice, practice, practice! Because standing in Andrew’s way of becoming the world’s greatest is none other than conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a hard-ass who takes much pride in breaking down his student’s spirits by telling them that “they suck”, and finding any colorful, derogatory term he can call them next. This fazes Andrew at first, but he soon thinks he’s got the hang of what Fletcher wants. That’s until Andrew goes a bit too far into his training, and this is where he and Fletcher come to terms on what it means to be the greatest, and how the both of them can possibly work together. If at all.
Being a drummer myself, I’m more inclined to look at this movie’s premise, its beliefs, and scoff at it. The reason being is because ever since I was a young fellow, I’ve always prided myself in teaching myself how to play drums and haven’t really cared too much for the whole idea of jazz-drumming, or any type of orchestra-playing for that matter, either. It’s just not my bag, baby, and while I know it’s plenty of other people’s bags, I still can’t bring myself to get too hype for a movie where a fellow drummer wants to be the biggest, the most talented, and overall, the best drummer of all-time.
Does it make me a bit jealous? Sure. But that’s another story, for another day.
This story here is about one Andrew Neiman and it’s one that’s like any other underdog tale – underdog has a dream; underdog has a talent; underdog has a set-back; underdog has an obstacle; etc. It’s a pretty simple formula, and it’s one that Whiplash doesn’t really try to shy away from, except for that it’s not really an underdog story, as much as it’s just a story about one’s addiction. Sure, our main protagonist Andrew definitely meets all the key elements to what would make him an underdog in the first place, but it’s not that we are necessarily worried about his talent (because he totally has it), it’s more that we’re worried how his talent is going to shine in the eyes of his professor/drill-instructor. If anything, it’s more of a battle within himself, than with any other person, although the character of Fletcher is definitely a suitable stand-in for whom would ultimately be considered “the villain”.
However, Fletcher isn’t a villain, and Andrew isn’t a hero; they’re both people who absolutely love and adore music. Music is their addiction and because they are dug so deep into it, they can’t help but lose whole parts of themselves and forget exactly what makes them tick and tock like a human in the first place. Especially in the case of Andrew, who actually seems like he loves drumming, but gets so enthralled with becoming the best and impressing the shorts off of his superior, that it starts to seem like the drums end up becoming his enemy, less than it being the other way around. What’s smart about Damien Chazelle’s writing, and I guess, his direction as well, is that he never makes it clear whether or not we should side with all of the pain, agony, and torment that Andrew is putting himself through.
Sure, a good portion of all that pain, agony, and torment is being put onto him through Fletcher’s non-stop abusive tactics, but for the most part, it’s all Andrew himself who could just walk away from all this, move on, get a degree, continue playing the drums, and see if he can get with a bunch of guys to become the next Everclear, or somebody else as awesome as them (seriously though, once you become “the next Everclear”, it’s a little hard to go any higher, you know). But Andrew doesn’t seem to want to do this and because of these sometimes poor, almost unsympathetic decisions he decides to take, we never know whether or not we should root for Andrew to achieve his dream, by any means necessary, or just do whatever he can, without harming himself in the meantime. Chazelle makes the smart decision of not really nailing-down his views to one side over the other, and it makes us, the viewers, make up our own minds for once and not have our hands held on every aspect.
Chazelle also does the same thing for the character of Fletcher, although it’s not nearly as successful as it is for Andrew. Most of this has to do with the way the character’s written though, and not at all with J.K. Simmons’ performance, because the guy is very solid, as usual. Actually, what’s so interesting about all of the praise surrounding Simmons here is that he isn’t really doing anything different from what we have seen him do before, like in Oz, or Spider-Man, or Juno, among many others. He yells, curses, and is abusive a lot, but he also shows that there’s a slight sign of humanity in this guy, which helps make him to come off as some sort of a human being, which is where Simmons does the most magic with this performance. Once again, it’s not like we haven’t seen him act like this before, it’s just that he’s become the main focal-point because of his constant yelling, cursing and abusing that leads me to believe that he’ll not only get nominated for an Oscar, but actually win it.
Once again though, another story, for another day.
However, where I feel the character of Fletcher is problematic, is in that he seems more like a cartoon, and one that his creator fully loves and adores. It makes sense that Fletcher would be this different kind of music professor that wouldn’t allow for any weaklings to stay in his orchestra unless they got through his heinous acts of hazing, but it doesn’t really make sense that he would go on for so long, with so many people still wanting to work with/be around him. Later on in the movie, we get a detail about Fletcher’s teaching-process and the sort of negative affect it’s had on his students, both present and past, but the way it’s thrown in there, makes me feel as if Chazelle doesn’t really care for it as much, and more or less, just loves the character of Fletcher himself.
Makes sense since this character is Chazelle’s brain-child, but it puts into perspective who Chazelle seems to side with a bit more and for what reasons. Why he wants to show us that Fletcher may go a tad too far, he still can’t help but seem to giggle at himself, or Simmons for that matter, whenever Fletcher calls somebody “a fag” and then hurls certain items at whoever he is talking to. I’m not saying it’s wrong to want to shed some positive light onto the character that you’ve created for the world to see, but whenever you’re throwing the idea of your character’s questionable ethics into the air, it makes for a bit of a sketchy discussion.
Which, yes, brings us all back to the age old question of Whiplash: How far should one go to achieve his/her dire need for greatness? Should they drive themselves into a manic state of constant anger and turmoil? Or, simply put, should one try their best, with as much effort as humanly possible, and try not to get themselves killed while doing so?
You be the judge on that, folks. I’m here to just review the damn flick.
Consensus: Whiplash may run into some muddy waters with its own judgment, but is still an effective piece of two people’s addictions, both very well-done by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.
8 / 10 = Matinee!!
Photo’s Credit to: Goggle Images