Whiplash is a film that should have been great. On paper, it is led by an actor who has yet to really have a proper leading role in J.K. Simmons, bouncing off a talented young future star in Miles Teller, with a plot that is usually used to make sports movies great – trying to show your talents to a coach with a high standard. Even stylistically, there are some moments that just look great, and the finale is probably one of the best you will see this year. The problem comes when you take it as a whole.
Andrew (Teller) is a student at Shaffer, a New York based music school which is the best in the country. His fascination with conductor Terence Fletcher (Simmons) leads him to be accidentally spotted by him and brought onto his jazz band as a backup drummer. The first rehearsal he is in goes about as well as you would expect in a movie of this sort, where he’s left broken and in tears, having to dodge a cymbal being hurled at his head and unable to understand what Terence wants from him.
Whiplash’s biggest problem is that it basically allows behaviour like that to occur without any real condemnation or consequence. Terence spends 95% of the movie shouting abuse about Andrew’s family, his playing, and breaking him down – all because of Terence’s overall belief that music needs to be this structured, mechanical entity. Without being strict and following tones and instruction, he believes that a person basically doomed to being told that they did a ‘good job’ all the time. Just as you think Andrew is going to stand up to the cruel punishment he is taking, he decides instead to cause himself great injury and ‘get better’ by playing on his own for hours at a time, wrecking his hands as a result.
The film is simply an advocate for this sort of behaviour. Rather than address the damage that this can do to people and learning from it, it basically tells you repeatedly that you need to be perfect and live up to a standard or else you’ll get complacent and never be any good. Most of this is nonsense and infuriating when systems are in place to put people in boxes and never let them be as creative and as free as we should let them be. The actions of Terence, whether to Andrew or his peers, never come to a head, even when the plot leads to actions being taken.
Unlike the wedged in sport movie aspect for Whiplash , music is a very creative medium. Most of the greatest artists of our generation or past generations created their greatest songs simply by going into a recording studio and seeing what happens. Structure is one thing, getting it perfected is another but basing your entire concept on the idea that music is great when it becomes formulaic and sounds good as a result from it takes away from the very heart of the medium you are doing. Sports movies have that aspect of skill and improvement that makes you want to root on the lead/s and make them the best. Music is all about creating something from pretty much a random assortment of skill and seeing what happens.
None of this is something you can blame on the lead actors in Teller and Simmons. With what they are given, they do a really convincing job of seeming like the worst people you could possibly go to a concert with but then there is really nothing else to either character. Essentially, both are assholes and the trouble with that is that you get to the point where you no longer care about either character because they both end up as bad as each other. Terence, for all the film tries to justify his behaviour, is still an unreasonable teacher from a different era and Andrew falls into the trap of trying to get his approval rather than try and fight the behaviour, to the point where his on-screen girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist, who might as well not be in the film at all) is treated as collateral damage for this. It’s a frustrating experience because it feels basic and unfinished; like humanity was needed to make it a much better rounded film.
Along with the film’s many other problems, it contains some abelist and overly abusive language along with general abusive comments. Rather than it being a big aspect of a movie, it’s a means to fulfil the movie’s overall story and foundation which, as mentioned before, is completely nonsensical. It all just feels unnecessary.
Whilst many of these things are glaring and take away from the film’s enjoyment, the film’s final scene is where the film gets to show itself off. It’s so rich in energy and musical anarchy that it really cements what the film tries to say. The cinematography, the editing, the rapid changes and musical consistency is simply a joy to behold. Without giving away more about it, it’s the finale that makes you wonder where the rest of that energy and flow went and is the only part of the movie that feels like the climax of a great sports movie.
Whiplash should have been a movie that showed what happened if you gave J.K. Simmons the ball and ran with it as well as putting a rocket on Miles Teller’s back, especially with big roles already coming his way. In a way, it still is. The downside is that it gives personas and roles that are about as unlikeable as you can get with nothing really grabbing about them. Without that, the film is an abusive, unfunny let-down that doesn’t even get the medium it’s making the film about.