dir: Damien Chazelle, 2014
*Originally written on October 30th*
After three separate and unique recommendations, I went out to see Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash the night before Halloween. It was a fitting screening, to say the least. Before we start though, I’d like to say that I’ve been meaning to see Grand Piano for a whoooole minute. It stares at me every time I open Netflix. I promise I’ll get to it.
Now, let’s jazz things up (sorry, I had to).
Whiplash is a lot of things. I’m fresh off watching the film, so, there are a lot of emotions in me right now and I’d like to be as cogent as possible.
Whiplash is exciting. Whiplash is a rough ride. Whiplash will unsettle you. Whiplash’s soundtrack is amazing. Whiplash’s visual profile and cinematography are lush and beautiful.
In a nutshell: ambitious collegiate freshman Andrew (Miles Teller) is invited to prove himself in the prestigious “studio band”, led by the magnetic, virulently coarse Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Fuckery ensues as Andrew is pushed to his musical limits and the risks begin to outweigh the rewards.
Simple right? Nah son.
On paper, this is a run of the mill coming-of-age story. But the players bring the life out of the script and throw you into a surreal, but all-too-familiar world. Simmons’ performance is brilliant in this film, as he toes the line between a man with a vision and vicious abuser. In turn, Teller’s chemistry with him is outright scary; together they take control of the film whenever they’re on screen (which in Teller’s case is damn near the whole film).
But let me backtrack: this film is about hazing (and jazz). Let me be more specific though: this film is about abuse and how it affects its victims. I’m not even going to touch Fletcher’s increasingly violent (and homophobic) rants. That’s too easy. Rather, I’d like to touch on how Andrew is effectively seduced, used, abused, and then humiliated by Fletcher. It’s scary because Teller plays Andrew’s ambitious naiveté incredibly well. The kid isn’t an idiot, but in his search for greatness (and affirmation), Fletcher seems to provide all. As a frosh, Andrew is impressionable, passionate, talented, and vulnerable. Fletcher of course takes full advantage of this. It’s only when Fletcher literally pushes Andrew to the point of death that he snaps out of the reverie.
In the climactic act though, he returns. In a scene that is one of the most masterful constructions in the film, the entire span of abuse is covered and, strangely, transcended. I say strangely because the film’s tone at this point feels uplifting, if not embattled. As Fletcher and Andrew work in unison, furiously cueing each other, sparring on stage, the music carries you to a furious ending note. That musical battle, and the cut to the end credits, leaves no room for closure.
While I don’t think there should be any, this ending is incredibly wounding. I think mostly because you know that Fletcher still wins. No matter how you (or he, or the film) argues it, Fletcher is a monster. Deluded by ideas of musical grandeur, he pursues the most debasing methods to squeeze “Charlie Parker” out of his students at Shaffer. In turn, the final act reveals the depths of his depravity in the name of excellent jazz.
For all it’s worth, in this last moment, Fletcher gets his Charlie Parker. And yes, Andrew achieves his potential. But at what cost? The moment feels like an ill manufactured gain that leaves you restless.
And yet, maybe that restlessness is what Fletcher (see: the film) wants. That never-ending itch for something more, and not just a nice, neat, “good job.” Honestly that’s up to you, the viewer. As a student and lover of film I can’t deny that no matter how you slice it, this film will move you. Not only is that hard to do in 2014, it’s something to take note of. So no matter how it makes you feel, Whiplash will make you feel something.
Whiplash may still be in a theater near you.
The original Homeboy With A Keyboard ™, dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. Find his rants and retweetery @dapisdope