Today I’m starting what I hope will become a regular feature here on High Contrast. On occasion, when a new film from an acclaimed director opens, it might be fun to look back on one of their previous films. This will allow for a more in-depth film analysis than can be done with initial reviews of new releases, at least if the goal is to keep those reviews spoiler free. For this first installment, I will discuss Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash.” Chazelle’s latest film, “First Man,” opens this weekend and focuses on the eight years leading up to the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon in 1969. It’s a bit of a departure for Chazelle as his films up to this point have focused on musicians. I hope to see “First Man” this weekend and have a review up soon. For now though, let’s talk about “Whiplash.”
I first saw this film in early 2015, right before it walked away with Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor-J.K. Simmons, Best Film Editing and Best Sound Mixing. It was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. At the time I was really blown away by this film. The three Academy Awards it won were, and still are, wholly deserved. Watching this film again I marveled at the frenetic cuts between Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) and the various, often sweat and blood soaked drum sets that take serious beatings. Each musical performance feels like an act of violence. Turn away from the images and the music is quite pleasing, but look at the screen and everything about its production is ugly and raw. Visually, Chazelle and his team do an amazing job of showing us what the characters are feeling through these sequences. It’s an agonizing depiction of what it can take to make quality art.
J.K. Simmons is also a force of nature here, and everything about his character runs counter to the sweet Oscar acceptance speech he gave nearly four years ago.
I’ve gotten the film’s strengths out of the way, however. Maybe at the time, I was so distracted by how disgusted I was by the nationalism and xenophobia on display in one of that years other Best Picture nominees (“American Sniper”) to really notice how terrible of a message this movie has.
Terence is a horrible human being. His behavior towards his jazz students gleefully pole vaults over the line between being a hard ass and downright abusive. He directs homophobic slurs at students, mocks another for his weight and does everything else in his power to crush every bit of self-esteem Andrew has. This is how he treats the special few he feels are worthy, at least briefly, of being a part of his class. It doesn’t end at verbal abuse. Fletcher hurls a chair at Andrew and then slaps him across the face repeatedly until he finds the right tempo. We also learn that Fletcher’s behavior likely drove a former student to suicide.
If you still haven’t seen the film, you might think this will lead to Terence’s downfall, and to some degree it does. After Andrew physically attacks Fletcher onstage, he testifies anonymously about his teacher’s abuse, and Terence is fired. However, the script offers him some vindication when an opportunity arises for Andrew to perform with Fletcher’s band at a jazz festival.
Initially, Terence appears to get revenge by having the band play a piece he knows Andrew isn’t familiar with. Once the piece ends, Andrew catches Fletcher off guard and begins performing a solo. Fletcher begins to guide his protégé through a breathtaking performance before exchanging smiles with him. Cue the end credits.
The message here is supposed to be about artists not letting themselves be discouraged by anyone. The problem is, the script allows Terence to be both the source of the discouragement and the mentor who provides that message. The result is a suggestion that these sorts of abusive tactics can create a tougher, more talented artist. Think about that. It’s like people who say bullying is good for kids because it toughens them up. Those who don’t toughen up are weak. That’s a pretty twisted message.
Another problem I had watching this film was just how unlikable Andrew is. I don’t need all, or any, of the characters to be likable. Andrew, however, is has a one track mind for most of the film that becomes very annoying. It’s always about his music and he’s a jerk to everyone around him for most of the film. He seems nice enough when asking movie theater concessionist Nicole (Melissa Benoist) out on a date. That charm is very short lived.
There’s a prickly edge to Andrew before he moves on to just being a prick. He’s downright rude at a dinner with his Dad and some friends of the family. For their part, they are equally rude. I just found myself feeling very little empathy towards this character for most of the film, and that’s surprising considering how much abuse he goes through. Maybe these unpleasant qualities about him are supposed to foreshadow how tough he is and make the way he gets back at Terence in the end feel in character. The only real time I really felt something for Andrew was when he got in a car accident right before having to perform onstage, and Terence still didn’t let up on him.
Art, whether it is music or acting or writing, is tough. I don’t reject the film’s message that it requires a lot of emotional strength and determination in addition to talent to make something incredible. Its other notion, however, that abusive mentors probably deserve some credit for that success, is flat out offensive. Terence doesn’t deserve to feel any satisfaction when Andrew plays a kick ass solo. Terence shouldn’t even be conducting before a packed house in any theater, as I’m sure his firing and complaints of abuse made headlines and in real-life would probably scare quite a few people away from working with him. Movie magic, I guess.
Ultimately “Whiplash” is probably a movie I’ll watch again. For much of its running time, it is stunning to watch this performance by Simmons. The editing and sound work here should be seen by anyone studying film. Chazelle’s script makes a serious error though in trying to offer an ending where both characters are left feeling good about working with each other, even if it is only this one time.