Am I writing about a film that came out nearly four years ago? Yes. Because that’s just how much the film resonated with me. Since first seeing the film back in 2014, I’ve watched it at least ten times since then, and in partial far more than that. I just watched it for the umpteenth time yesterday. If I see it on, no matter what place the film is in, I’ll watch it until it ends. It’s a film that never seems to get old for me. It never fatigues me in the way a Star Wars or an Avengers would. At one point I could recite lines word for word during certain scenes, in particular the scene where Fletcher (A role JK Simmons seemed to be created to play.) Psychologically tortures a trombone player to the point of tears.
That’s the thing about this film. It’s memorable. It’s memorable in a way that’s more than a special effects spectacle, over-acted prostration, or an orgy of set pieces and scenery. It makes use of it’s smaller scale, packing energy and emotion into small rehearsal rooms and coffee shops with the largest scenes taking place on grand stages. I’ve seen, and will see countless other movies where storytelling and character building takes a backseat to explosions and sex, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with movies like that. It’s just that they’ve become the norm. It seems that Hollywood is giving us a polarized choice between watching superheroes punch each other or pretentious, inaccessible, grandiose hollowness in the form of historical dramas. There’s rarely any middle ground and if there is something that breaks the norm, it’s regulated to independent festivals or simply ignored outright.
Whiplash is also brilliant in the simplicity of its plot. Andrew (Miles Teller) is a young jazz drummer with immense potential and Fletcher (JK Simmons) sees that potential and works to flesh it out in the most horrific ways possible. The premise of this movie can be summed up in a sentence. There’s no backstory to be told, no tie in stories to memorize, wikis to read. Someone with no knowledge of jazz can watch this film and not just understand it, but gain something from it.
Fletcher is of the belief that through pain, greatness is created. Verbal, psychological and occasionally physical abuse are his key tools towards this goal. Fletcher’s strategy is the complete antithesis of what we would normally see in movies like this. There’s no positive reinforcement, no intimate encouraging conversations, nothing. It’s blood and tears from beginning to end. The film never lets up on its tension. Even after seeing the film as many times as I have, I still find myself gripping the arms on my chair a little more, or leaning in during certain scenes.
Hollywood has long had a fascination with “happy endings.” Movie endings where every character is better as a result of the events of the movie and everyone goes their separate ways, content The world is a better place, everyone is happy. In recent years, it hasn’t been as much as a problem, but Hollywood in it’s infinite conservatism still throws them out like I throw out platitudes. That’s why the ending of Whiplash was so satisfying. Some might mistake it as a happy ending, considering that both Fletcher and Andrew smile at each other (which, if you watch some movies with happy endings, is a pretty low barrier of entry) but when you consider what Andrew went through and the character he’s attempting to prove himself to (Fletcher) you realize that Andrew’s identity has essentially been destroyed and he doesn’t seem to care about ever finding it again. He’s a jazz drummer now, a great one, probably one of the greats, but he’s a shell. He lives to play and really nothing else. He pushed away his love interest in the early part of the second act of the film simply to focus more time on drumming. The tenderness that existed within Andrew in the beginning of the movie is gone and replaced with nothing but a drive to be the best.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with having drive, but letting that drive consume you is dangerous. Watching Andrew lose himself in his craft is mesmerizing. There’s a scene towards the end of the film where Andrew’s father watches, in horror, as Andrew plays an incredibly intense drum solo in front of a crowd of equally interested jazz aficionados. Andrew’s father knows he just lost his son, and he’s watching what’s left.
I love this movie. I feel like there should be more movies like it. Movies like this deserve more recognition, more awards, more interest. It’s an example of a film that you would think would be more popular than it is. Damien Chazelle created a film that other directors should aspire to. Creating a film this size with this sort of quality is a far greater feat than throwing together another war spectacle or another primary colored cacophony of spandex and explosions. It’s’ intimate and its intense, and we should see more like it.