I thought the good folks over at the NYFF were kidding when they described Whiplash as “Full Metal Jacket at Julliard.” I’ve been burned by their film descriptions before, so I couldn’t trust something that just sounded so brilliant. I mean, that’s one hell of a pitch. But sticking with my rule of going into films blind, I left it at that. I didn’t watch the trailer, nor did I seek out the short film that raised the money to fund the feature. I didn’t even listen to “Whiplash.”
But that pitch pulled me in. And much to my surprise, it’s shockingly fitting. And to be honest, it’s even better than it sounds.
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the 52nd New York Film Festival. It is being reposted to coincide with the film’s theatrical release.]
Director: Damien Chazelle
Release Date: October 10, 2014 (Limited)
This is “Whiplash”:
That song is your litmus test for the film. If you do not like that song, you won’t like Whiplash. You hear bits and pieces of the song over and over again, and if your delicate ears can’t deal with the jazzy brilliance, you 1) Need to seriously reconsider your life decisions, and 2) Should avoid Whiplash like the plague. But let’s assume that you’re a rational human being with decent taste in music. Pretty great song, right? It’s also really, really difficult for a drummer to play correctly.
And so it makes sense that “Whiplash” is a go-to track for Studio Band, the most prestigious Jazz group in the most prestigious music conservatory in America. Everyone at the school wants to be in Studio Band, but only a select few can make that leap. And doing so means interacting directly with Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). The man is absolutely vicious, his rapid fire insults would have made Kubrick proud, and he serves to make a band feel like a military platoon.
Fletcher is an amalgamation of actual people. The film was inspired by director Damien Chazelle’s own experiences as a drummer in high school under the tutelage of a particularly cruel instructor. But Fletcher is more than that, taking in the worst qualities of instructors that various consultants on the film had had. Fletcher is all of them. He’s the worst of the worst.
But he’s not as bad as Andrew Neyman.
If I were to describe Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) in two words, they would be “Whiny brat.” He’s an awful person. The worst kind of person, really, because he’s really good, knows it, and revels in it. People who think they’re really good and aren’t are annoying, but they can be dismissed. Neyman is really, really good (more on that later), but he’s a total dick about it. And that’s a shame, because he isn’t just a natural talent who shows up and blows everyone away. He has to work really hard to be the best. He literally moves his mattress into a practice room so he can practice whenever and forever. He plays and plays until his hands are raw and bleeding. Yeah, those are the traits of a crazy person, but so what? That’s what it takes to be the best. If he had any likable traits, I’d have totally been on his side. (Especially since I’m a drummer, and I know just how freaking hard that stuff is to pull off.)
But alas. Neyman won’t allow for anything verging on sympathy. The hard work is admirable (and necessary), but it comes at the expense of his outside interactions and basically anything at all that could humanize him. He wants to become one of The Greats because then people will know His name and worship at the altar of Neyman. Everyone around him just gets in the way. I’ve met people like Andrew Neyman. I don’t like them. And I don’t like him.
This meant that certain scenes simply didn’t work for me on an emotional level. I was rooting for Andrew Neyman to fail, and when things began to fall apart for him I was cheering along. So in a pivotal scene at home where Andrew’s family essentially ignores his accomplishments in favor of his brother’s Division III football accolades, I was caught between my hatred for him and a feeling of total understanding. Having done primarily artistic things with much of my life (music, theater, writing), I’ve had plenty of moments where my own accomplishments were belittled by comparison. Not from family, but from others. Andrew Neyman is in the best band at the best music school, and his family doesn’t care. That should be extremely depressing, but it’s not, and Andrew lashes out in a way that just makes him even less sympathetic.
But scenes like that also highlight an undeniable truth: Whiplash feels right. Even though I hated Neyman, he felt like an actual person. Terence Fletcher occasionally threatens to turn into a cartoonish villain (and arguably his final gesture of ill will tips the scales a bit), but he still feels like a person who could exist. Who does exist. All throughout, nothing feels forced or artificial. It’s just natural, and it’s a testament to both the performers and writer/director Damien Chazelle that my issues with the characters merely tempered my enjoyment of the film rather than outright ruined it.
But more than anything else, it’s Whiplash‘s soundtrack that makes the film so fascinating. Not only is the music incredible (if the soundtrack doesn’t hit Spotify soon, I may very well be buying a CD for the first time in years) but watching the performances develop over the film’s 106 minute runtime is extremely gratifying both as someone who is not particularly good at music and also as someone who appreciates the talent that goes into making it great.