Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash opens with a drum roll of steadily increasing speed and intensity, and that’s as an appropriate a metaphor for the filmmaking as any. That sound is heard over a black screen; the next drum roll is accompanied by a slow tracking shot down a music conservatory hallway, to a young drummer named Andrew (Miles Teller). He stops playing when he realizes he’s being watched by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the school’s most feared instructor, a mysterious bogeyman who floats through hallways before bursting in doors like the Kool-Aid Man. “You know I’m looking for players,” he tells Andrew. “Yes, sir,” the young man replies. “Then why did you stop playing?” He resumes — and the instructor objects. He plays again, and Fletcher is gone, like a ghost.
The scene immediately establishes the terms of their relationship: as a head game, a plea for approval and acceptance. Usually, a hard case like Fletcher is seen as an inspirational figure whose unconventional methodology and tough love are ultimately redeemed by his results. Whiplash is not as simple a film as that; it’s a thorny, thoughtful movie that asks provocative questions and isn’t cocky enough to boast of knowing the answers.
What is crystal clear is what Fletcher is: a bully. He’s humiliates them publicly, is verbally and sometimes physically abusive, and is capable of reducing his players to tears. When he moves Andrew in to his showcase ensemble, he pulls him aside and makes chit-chat, innocent questions about his background and his parents; turns out, he’s not being nice, but gathering ammunition to lob at him in rehearsals. He throws around slurs like “limp” and “pussy” and “faggot,” with the understanding that a real man can take the abuse.
But should he have to? This is the central question of the film, Chazelle explained at a press conference in advance of its New York Film Festival debut last weekend; Whiplash is loosely based on his own experiences with tyrannical music teachers, and as a result of their efforts, “my motivation for being a good drummer was borne out of fear, which seems so antithetical to what art should be.” And it seems particularly peculiar when it comes to jazz, he went on, a music “renowned for its sense of freedom, and the whole music itself being a kind of fuck-you to authority, the fact that there’s such an authoritative streak, in big-band jazz at least, struck me as paradoxical.”
Yet Fletcher is not unique to jazz — he represents a certain type of feared, respected figure who is mostly cruel because he can be. (And his students follow suit; an awkward family dinner scene shows Andrew can give as good as he gets.) Yet they are tyrants in a tiny, tiny world, only important to a microscopic sliver of people. And it’s tough to condemn their methods entirely — after all, the insults and fury and chairs that Fletcher hurls at Andrew gets results. He practices until his fingers callous and bleed, and then he bandages them up and practices some more, until he’s good enough. (Not good enough for praise, mind you, but good enough to be left alone.)
From sports movies to military dramas, the tough-as-nails coach or commander has to break our protagonist in order to push them to the limit of their skills. But Andrew (and the movie) asks, not unreasonably, “Where’s the limit?” Fletcher insists no one understands what he’s doing (“I’m trying to push people,” he explains), and the movie lets him state his case. But it also knows that he’s a small, petty man, and Chazelle is a savvy enough filmmaker (in spite of his age — at the NYFF press conference, the amiable Simmons jokingly referred to his director as, variously, “an adolescent,” “a child,” and “11 years old”) to know the character, and the film, are more interesting if they carry a degree of moral complexity.
All of this chewy subject matter may make Whiplash sound like some kind of dry meditation on the nature of teaching and the power of reinforcement, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a breathtakingly paced, staggeringly visceral movie, much of it utterly brutal to endure, leaving any reasonably sympathetic audience member all bundled up and nervous for this poor kid. Chazelle directs like the drummer he once was, with a sure sense of visual and aural rhythm. He moves so fast and confidently, in fact, that you may not stop to question why he’s made a movie about jazz where the only important speaking roles go to white guys; I’m not sure any of the black musicians have more than a line or two, and I only spotted two women total in the three big bands.
So that’s a problem — as is the romantic subplot, which is so poorly developed and so clearly a box to be checked that Chazelle seems to have left out the bulk of it entirely (the relationship goes from first date to breakup seemingly overnight). But he wouldn’t be the first young, white, male filmmaker to make those kind of amateur mistakes, and they don’t negate what makes the picture so successful otherwise: its force, its energy, and its anger. Andrew leaves his blood on the skins, and so does this very fine film.
Whiplash screens tonight at the New York Film Festival. It opens in New York and Los Angeles on October 10.
NYFF press conference photo credit: Jason Bailey / Flavorwire