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Hold On to Your Turtlenecks, It's 'Whiplash'

This jazz thriller rocked the house at Vancouver's film fest and hits theatres this weekend.

Dorothy Woodend 25 Oct

Dorothy Woodend writes about film every other week for The Tyee. Find her previous articles here.

The basic premise of Damien Chazelle's sophomore feature film Whiplash is this: a young drummer named Andrew Neyman joins a jazz band and meets a teacher named Terence Fletcher who will push him to the limits of his ability and sanity.

It's a boy's movie, a veritable sword fight from beginning to end. The only woman in the film takes one look at the proceeding, rolls her eyes and walks out the door, leaving the boys to their hijinks. The last time I saw this much man-on-man struggle was when Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestled by firelight, wieners flapping happily away, in Ken Russell's film Women in Love.

This isn't to say that Whiplash isn't a lot of fun to watch.

The film closed the Vancouver International Film Festival this year and opens in theatres this week. It was a perfect film to end the fest, packing a huge wallop in the final scene. It was one of those cinematic moments that brings folk to their feet, hands a blur of movement, raining applause in a genuine expression of pleasure and gratitude.

Whiplash is a well made film, expertly edited and performed with aplomb, but it's a little bit ridiculous. It's also very much a young man's film -- director Chazelle is all of 29 -- and filled with the testosterone frenzy that implies. The fizzy energy that fuels young men, like someone took a soda bottle and shook it vigorously, surges through the story. All that bubbled energy, caught and contained, has got to come out and out it comes in the ringing sequence of the film's finale.

This is a movie of emissions -- blood, sweat, tears. Most of the fluids wrung out of young bodies make an appearance at some point. This may sound gross, and occasionally it is (there are a few too many scenes of blood on the cymbals). The point, I suppose, is to render clear the true cost of genius.

Ambition lurks

The film starts out with a calm, almost somber quality. Andrew and his father, a failed writer played by a rather chinless Paul Reiser, visit the cinema, banter like old fogeys and toddle gently home. But ambition lurks inside Andrew like a virus. He wants to be a jazz superstar like Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker, two players cited throughout the film like touchstones of greatness. The director's own experience in a high school jazz band was the inspiration for the story, and gave the film its early descriptor, Full Metal Drum Kit.

Young Andrew's immersion in what it takes to be great begins when he is plucked from a farm team jazz ensemble and sent up to the elite group presided over by teacher Terence Fletcher. Like a Roman emperor of old, Fletcher doesn't signal his displeasure with a thumb; he uses his whole fist. As if listening to a jazz rehearsal wasn't torture enough, Fletcher ups the ante with a fusillade of insults so rich and ripe, they come tripping off the tongue like scat. Inside the stately walls of the practice room, all normal rules are upended. Soon it is all face slaps, screaming threats, and an appalling, controlling sadism that seems to know no boundaries. All Fletcher lacks is a good leitmotif, like that of Darth Vader or the dragon Fafner, to announce his true nature.

Fletcher is a dream character for an actor of a certain age, and J.K. Simmons brings everything he has to the role of this leathery villain. If you see something of the succubus in his portrayal, you're not far wrong. Occasionally Simmons vaguely resembles Max Schreck's famous Nosferatu, minus the teeth and fingernails. Pity poor little Andrew who initially seems not quite up to the task at hand. But the kid's got grit, as he proves in a long, painful scene where Fletcher pits three would-be drummers against each other, driving them into soul-destroying efforts to give him more, more, more speed, more passion. The pitched battle between the young lion and the alpha male is as old as the hills but it still has juice, as the snarling, roaring scenes inside the practice room make clear.

There's a thin line between up-and-comer and egomaniacal monster, and Andrew goes traipsing over that line with only the barest bit of help from his teacher. He knows he's good but he wants greatness, wants to hold it down and beat it senseless. If you remember a snotty, weepy Richard Gere caught under the boot heel of Louis Gossett, Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman, then you'll have some notion of what's coming. Simply swap out Gere's rifle for a drum set, and away we go.

This is no 'Fame'

The most unexpected thing that the film does is make hot jazz cool. Long the purview of "science teachers and the mentally ill," to steal a phrase from The Mighty Boosh, jazz has largely been consigned to Starbucks compilations and Ken Burns documentaries on PBS. What Whiplash does most effectively is draw out the arcane rituals of musicians. You may not always understand what's taking place, but the language of music renders that moot. The perfectionism that obsesses Andrew and his teacher has a momentum all its own, and the film apes the pulse of the music itself, cutting scenes to the beat of Andrew's drum kit. The result is a frenetic, powerful engine that drives the story forward, helped along by staggering performances from the two leads.

We've come a long way from the rumpled music teacher in Fame, who helped kids find their inner genius through gentle support, or the lofty Professor Kingsfield in The Paper Chase. Fletcher is more black leather dominatrix than tweedy elbow patches. He may not have shiny boots of leather, but his shiny bald head more than suffices. As the power struggle between teacher and student gets more twisted, sufferer becomes sufferee.

Slowly, and then more certainly, Andrew becomes the student of the master. At a dinner party with family and friends, his newfound confidence manifests as smart-mouth insults. He dumps his nice girlfriend because she might distract him from his quest for greatness. Nothing will stop our little drummer boy, not even a speeding semi. After being smushed in a car accident, Andrew hobbles on stage, bloody and determined to show up his teacher. Sure, the old adage that one must suffer to be great holds some truth, but this is ridiculous.

As things degenerate into madness and violence, the film itself has to pull back from the precipice over which it has hurtled, and so begins the second part of the story. A tragic event at the school means both Fletcher and Andrew are forced to leave the music program, but their destiny isn't determined yet. When they meet again at a small jazz club, it appears that they're ready to bury the hatchet, just not quite where you expect. I won't spoil the final sequence of the film, except to say that if you like jazz drum solos, then hold on to your turtleneck. And if you hate jazz drum solos, lie back and think of England.

Greatness at a price

Like his hero in Whiplash, the filmmaker wants to put on a show, to demonstrate what he can do, set off pyrotechnics and blow shit up. It's impressive, but also a bit tiresome after a while. Certainly there is joy in the skill and prowess of Andrew's one-man solo performance. But it's the solo part that becomes the problem. The ending loops back around to the opening scene, where Andrew sits alone in a practice room, hammering away. There's a certain quality to it, egoism or solipsism. It's a sin that the film is also guilty of, being a little too into itself.

Other things are problematic as well. Everything and everyone outside of the spotlight exists in darkened shadow. You see it in the scene where Andrew's girlfriend bluntly tells him, "You have no friends," or the image of his sadsack of a father peeping in through a window to watch his son do his thing. Or even worse, in Andrew's fellow players, many of them people of colour, consigned to watching the two white men go toe-to-toe in a jazz showdown.

The worst thing that Whiplash does is make the case, however obliquely, that great art justifies bad behaviour. Fletcher is a monster, and yet the film makes us identify with him and it uses music to do this. It's seductive, and there's a part of me that wanted to believe, but the great artist/even bigger dink thing kept poking me in the eye. I thought this idea went out with the hoop skirt and horse and buggy but somehow it keeps coming back. "

Roman Polanski and Woody Allen are still working, and people seem to be able to separate art from artist. Sometimes I wonder if this is such a great idea. The two jazz greats that the film pays homage to, Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich, were infamous for their destructive habits and horrendous personal lives. Rich in particular was renowned for his terrible temper, so much so that the secret recordings of his temper tantrums have taken on legendary status. When Charlie Parker died, the attending physician thought from the state of the body that Parker was in his sixties. He was 34 years old.

Andrew aspires to their legendary status. But greatness comes with a very steep price tag: loneliness, pain and sadness. Is it worth it? Depends how much you like jazz, I guess.  [Tyee]

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