As per every winter, the awards season is dominated by dull biopics (mentioning no Imitation Games… er, names!) and reaffirming tales of hope and triumph in the face of adversity. From the outset, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash makes it clear that it is not interested in being that still and fussy. It’s energetic, lapsing into raw. If it goes too far in its efforts to distance itself from other contenders, at least this pretender proves its mettle.
The pursuit of greatness is lonely, a fact accentuated by the opening shot of Whiplash. From a corridor we see Andrew (Miles Teller) sitting in a small dark room performing a solid solo on a drum kit. As he sweats and strains to belt out his tune, the pathologically bald presence of J.K. Simmons looms in the doorway. In a Golden Globe-winning performance, Simmons plays Terence Fletcher, a legendary music tutor at New York’s Shaffer Academy. Andrew has just arrived at Shaffer as a freshman, full of naive enthusiasm for his new surroundings and his clear passion for his chosen instrument. He’s aiming to be no less than the next Buddy Rich, though hopefully without the potty mouth. In the normal course of events, he’d continue practicing his gift and, with the right level of encouragement, he’d blossom into a genuinely formidable talent. Then again, Fletcher isn’t that kind of teacher; this is J.K. Simmons, after all. Anyone who’s seen his portrayal of Vern Schillinger in Oz knows that Simmons is capable of tremendous cruelty, and he brings it to bear in a performance more inspired by Full Metal Jacket than Dead Poets Society. This introductory meeting proves less than fruitful for Andrew, but this is just the beginning of a process of apparent demoralization.
With Whiplash, writer/director Chazelle appears overly determined to tear up the rule book on how these struggles for greatness should be played out. It’s a simple idea at its core: take the basic traits of these stories, but just alter it slightly. In this case, the teacher aims for true greatness, but he’s more sociophobe than sage. The unpalatable sappiness is replaced by hostility, albeit one motivated by a mistaken belief that it can inspire (The example of Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at a young Charlie Parker is often cited). But does it go too far? After his original drummer is dismissed, Fletcher summons Andrew up to become the new alternate drummer for his elite band. Andrew’s first rehearsal session seems to be going fine when Fletcher launches a chair at his head, followed by a torrent of insults and a few slaps to the face. It’s unbelieveable that Fletcher has held his job for so long with these methods, but then he’s not built on believability. Simmons injects life into a character who is defined solely by his talent and his rage, and nothing more. Once you analyze it carefully, Fletcher is a rote psycho.
The film also posits that this erratic and abusive behaviour can actually be beneficial. Or does it? Well, Andrew clearly has natural talent to burn. Teller certainly sells this with a committed performance that sees him sweat and emote his way through a gruelling barrage of abuse, rehearsal and emotional self-immolation. Andrew ends up breaking up with his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) and letting his grades slip, whilst bearing the blisters and cuts of repeated rehearsals on his hands. It is important to remember that Andrew has ability to burn, regardless of what Fletcher or anyone else tells him. At its sanest, Whiplash can be viewed as a power play between a dominant sadist and a fresh-faced noob discovering a taste for misanthropy. Viewed as such, it’s got nothing on the racier, yet more subdued The Duke Of Burgundy. It’s a portrait of control through a monopoly of violence. A college classroom seems an unlikely place in which to demonstrate the power of fear, but Fletcher’s dominance over his students’ academic and professional prowess is nothing if not dictatorially absolute. His penchant for undermining his students would be admirable if it wasn’t so brutal and one-note. There is a warped fascination to watching this control be exerted; Simmons keeps all comers on their toes with a performance of unpredictability and incredible anger. Yet none of that can change the fact he’s very thinly characterized under the bluster.
Whiplash is not the usual triumph-over-adversity story, for which we should be thankful. However, it stays wedded to that formula and introduces some dubious elements to produce something that doesn’t satisfactorily transcend its origins. The energy of the two excellent central performances drive it along. Whiplash entertains, but its uncertainty in both tone and genre leave an uneasy feeling. Perhaps it needs to be put through a few traumas before achieving perfection.