' ' Cinema Romantico: Whiplash

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Did you know Jo Jones, percussionist in Count Basie's Orchestra, once threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker's head? If you didn't, rest assured, you will by the time "Whiplash" concludes, considering it's the go-to dictum for Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a hot-headed instructor at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory, who employs the dictum's purported wisdom as a means to excuse his abusive teaching methods. In that way, writer/director Damien Chazelle's film is a little like what might have happened if Coach Herb Brooks of "Miracle" was tasked with coaxing balletic perfection out of Nina Sayers in "Black Swan." Of course, Brooks' medieval approach to instructing was excused because he beat the Russians in the midst of the Cold War and Nina's tale was primarily a ghastly yet beautiful descent into madness whereas "Whiplash" yearns to genuinely explore the notion of psychological torment yielding genius. The torment is palpable. The genius? Eh......

Fletcher co-opts nineteen year old Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) as his protégé, quickly promoting him from flipping note pages of jazz percussionists in line ahead of him to become the victim of his browbeating tirades behind the actual drum kit of his core competition group. Introduced as the product of a good-hearted if quiet father (Paul Reiser), vulnerable and terrifically shy, hardly able to muster the courage and verbiage to ask out the kindly concessionist (Melissa Benoist) at the movie theater he frequents, he consciously comes across as a cipher. Yes, he is afforded some jargon about wanting to be one of "the greats", but his skill seems less the point to Fletcher than his apple-faced disposition ripe for manipulation.

That's where the film grows curious. It's about jazz, sort of, in that way "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is about aliens. Jazz is primarily about individual expression within a musical collective and yet all sense of Andrew's individual expression is stifled. "Not my tempo," Fletcher repeatedly intones when he disapproves of his pupil's tapping of the beat. In other words, screw your tempo - I want my tempo. Outfit nearly the whole ninety minutes in black slacks and black short-sleeved shirt showing off rippled muscles, Fletcher evokes an archetypal Movie Bad Guy, never more than an early shot in which Andrew catches sight of Fletcher through a door window only to quickly duck from sight when Fletcher senses being watched and turns.

It could possibly be posited that his villainous ways are the device by which he cultivates the drumming brilliance of Andrew. The problem, however, is that little evidence is provided in the way of how Fletcher's student grows or expands as an actual percussionist. All we see are marathon speed drumming sessions that yield blood, sweat and tears while the music itself is paid virtually no mind. The closest the film gets to its hypothetical subject doubles as the closest the film gets to a genuine heartwarming moment, one in which Andrew stumbles upon Fletcher sitting in on piano with a jazz outfit at some small club.

There and only there, a sliver of joy can be detected on Fletcher's face as he taps ever so lightly at the keys, and we wonder if he is merely another in a long line of "misunderstood" characters. Alas, once he sees Andrew and calls him over for a drink, there is no talk of the music. Instead he trots back out the story of Jo Jones hurling the cymbal at Charlie Parker's head, reducing the revolutionary sounds of Bird to an isolated event like "Walk the Line" reducing John R. Cash to the sum of his older brother dying.

Thus, when the much talked about concluding drum solo arrives after the downturn of the second act, it feels neither triumphant nor like a validation of the mentor's methods. This is no deconstruction of how genius is nurtured - this is a horror movie, and Terrence Fletcher is the black-clad monster assimilating his prey.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting perspective, Nick. I think Terrence Fletcher does act as a villain of sort in this story. I really enjoyed this movie a lot! I do think Fletcher is wholly aware of how crazy he is, and yet he is perfectly fine accepting his own madness, regardless of how it affects other people and his students. He has an agenda, and that's all that matters.