I’m not going to officially share this on the blog because I’m not sure that would be productive. I wrote most of this in the spring of 2015, shortly after I saw Whiplash for the first time, with some further work done when I launched my website in the summer of 2020. Sometimes I write reviews for fun but for this flick... I just had to put my shock and horror into words. Criticizing Whiplash is like farting in a windstorm — I doubt this will change anyone’s mind, but just in case you’re wondering what my thoughts on the film are... here you go.
I remember being younger and looking up Rotten Tomato scores for beloved films like Up, The Dark Knight, and Spirited Away, thinking to myself, “What’s up with the five or so people who don’t like these movies? What’s their problem?”
Eventually, you just have to accept that, no matter how much you enjoy something, there are people out there who just won’t get it. Well, I have a much better time understanding those people now that I watched Whiplash.
It was the big hit at Sundance in 2014: a musical drama written and directed by Damien Chazelle, starring Miles Teller as a jazz drummer and J.K. Simmons as the leader of a prestigious jazz band. Whiplash recently got its wide release in the United States, and the crowd has gone wild. Every bit of praise imaginable has been dolled out to Whiplash: powerfully acted, incredibly intense, and authentic to its subject matter. Being a drummer myself, tons of people told me I just had to see this film. Life changing. A phenomenon. It’s just, like, so good dude.
The premise of Whiplash is a familiar one that’s more reminiscent of a sports film than a musical. The crux of the story is the relationship between an ambitious student and his demanding teacher. But don’t expect a movie like Rocky, because what we get instead is something closer to Air Bud. To that end, the famous quip “Ain’t no rule says a dog can’t play basketball” has about as much effort put behind it as anything in Whiplash.
Teller plays the role of Andrew Neiman, a first–year jazz student at the fictional Shaffer Music Conservatory in New York City. Andrew has high hopes of becoming “one of the greats” (à la Buddy Rich), and it doesn’t take long before he gets recruited into the school’s top jazz ensemble led by Terrance Fletcher (Simmons). Once Andrew joins, Fletcher’s teaching style quickly becomes clear as we watch him relentlessly abuse, torment, and attack his students to bring them to their top level. Andrew is no exception, and Fletcher becomes particularly obsessed with the 19–year–old drummer in his rampage for excellence.
Chazelle claims that he used to be a drummer before he set his mind to movie–making. If that’s the case, he has a lot of explaining to do, since Whiplash makes me wonder if Chazelle has ever spent time with a musical ensemble. Now I’m well–aware that it’s forgivable to have some leeway with reality in favor of drama. But good lord, Chazelle doesn’t even seem to know how to correctly set up a drum kit, let alone how to portray functioning, college–level musicians (or the musical process) with any degree of believability.
Worse still, Whiplash really wants to impress you with how much it thinks it understands music, with the script peppering in bogus technical words and phrases with no rhyme or reason. Combined with some slick editing and hip, modern–sounding jazz tunes, the film seems polished. But this feels less like authenticity and more like subterfuge, akin to a bad war movie that beats you over the head with stagy military jargon while giving no regard to what it all tells you about the story or characters.
To further flex its musical knowledge, the movie has Fletcher frequently repeat and revel in a fable about beloved jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. The tale in question purports that Parker was inspired to change music forever only after bombing a solo at a jam session, during which a cymbal was thrown at his head by drummer Papa Jo Jones in response to the lackluster performance.
In truth, Jones probably lobbed the cymbal at Parker’s feet, reacting more to the poor taste of Parker’s playing than the saxophonist choking under pressure. But who has time to research this stuff?
The thing is, this isn’t even the movie’s biggest problem. The most troubling issue at hand is that Whiplash makes me wonder if Chazelle has ever spent time understanding how to tell a good story.
On top of having inscrutable character motivations, Andrew is just a brat; as only one example, he’s deeply embarrassed that his single father had to give up on becoming an author in favor of finding steady work as a schoolteacher. Andrew even lies to Fletcher about his dad’s job before fessing up that his pop is a just lowly high school educator.
Am I supposed to care about this kid? You think with the gauntlet Andrew goes through, Whiplash would try to give us a reason to root for him… but no. To paraphrase Todd Bishop, Chazelle must have figured that if you shower an actor with abuse, people will empathize with him even if you’ve done nothing to develop his character or make him likable in any way.
And then there’s Fletcher, an absolute birdbrain who commands no respect as a bandleader. The direction Fletcher brings to his ensemble is glib and superficial, yet that only scratches the surface of the song–and–dance behavior Whiplash tries to pass off for teaching.
Fletcher takes every opportunity to turn a student’s mistake into an outrageous, time–wasting sideshow, often exploding into bloated and witless tirades that are more nonplussing than offending. And somehow, Whiplash has us believe that not only is he a convincing villain, but master players are churned out of his tutelage. One can only imagine how this guy climbed up the education ladder instead of winding up in jail or an asylum.
In terms of plot, save for one or two mildly arresting parts, everything is as predictable as you’d expect. Andrew gets yelled at, mindlessly practices, spirals into his obsession, and then delivers a triumphant performance at the film’s finale. Yawn.
All this muck dilutes whatever insight could be pried from this picture. On the one hand, Whiplash makes it seem like tireless practice and dedication will make you a legend at your craft, and all that’s needed to get there is the proper motivation (in the form of some dickhead screaming at you).
However, take a conversation late in the film where Fletcher justifies his cruelty by telling Andrew that “the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged”. So now what? I guess being a great artist means having some sort of innate spark that’s less about musical acumen and more about being able to put up with any amount of ridiculous, abusive, dawdling nonsense that might come your way, such as: being thrown out of an ensemble for doing nothing wrong; getting physically assaulted for imperceptible differences in timing; or having your director lie to you about when rehearsal starts (and yes, all three of those happen in Whiplash).
I suppose that there are some redeeming parts to find. At least Simmons delivers his silly pontifications with conviction. And there is an undeniable luster to much of the film that helps give it some allure. But as I said earlier, it just feels like a ruse; once you get down to it, everything about the film is cheap, and I struggle to find any appeal. Even the music scenes fail to be captivating. And why would they be? Is watching actors badly mime to a recording made by unknown studio players supposed to be entertaining?
All in all, there’s barely any music even in the damn movie. Save for the final performance, Whiplash feels like it wants to move on from every tune as quickly as it can. Perhaps the film is worried it’ll bore us with actual songs. Well, it should be — let’s just get back to the bloody drumsticks and hamfisted bleakness!
I don’t blame you if you still want to watch Whiplash, since people are making it seem like you’ll miss out on a spiritual experience if you skip this film. And you know what, if you watched Whiplash and enjoyed it, fine. But I’m just not about it. I think I’m starting to understand what happens when a physicist watches Interstellar, or maybe when an airline pilot watches Flight.
And yet, both of those films try to give us an actual story with real emotions and characterizations, moving beyond their subject matter (not to mention how they provide some compelling filmmaking). Meanwhile, Whiplash is a disturbingly one–dimensional; again, the plot is unremarkable, the direction is callow, and the characters are all vapid morons with nothing interesting to say.
Thanks to this movie, I can’t help but approach any “technical” film with deep skepticism, since I now realize how much praise can be heaped onto a movie that doesn’t even try. The unfortunate thing is that some filmmakers do try — Whiplash could have been the My Cousin Vinnie of the drumming world, but instead, it’s about as substantive as Michael Bay’s 2001 catastrophe Pearl Harbor.
For a specific musical example, let me introduce an anime called Kids on the Slope (a.k.a. Sakamichi no Aporon). Aside from having a lovely story about two teenagers who bond by playing music together, it’s a great demonstration of what happens when creators properly channel their efforts. Listen to the apprehension in one of the character’s piano playing when he jams with other people for the first time. Or check out a scene where the two main characters shed in a church:
That three–minute clip alone has more artistry in each frame than Whiplash realizes even exists. This is what true passion and effort look like. As far as Hollywood productions go, consider a movie like 2012’s Les Miserables in which the actors sang live on set (admittedly for demented reasons). During the production of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany spent months with one of the film’s composers learning proper string instrument fingerings, all for a single sequence that barely lasts 90 seconds.
Meanwhile, Miles Teller apparently learned to play the drums by himself, and it shows. Chazelle, obviously a musical doyen who has his priorities in line, was probably too busy instructing JK Simmons on how to call his costars “faggots” and “retards” with the proper panache.
Truly, this is some groundbreaking and visionary direction. Having a character act like a batty bigot is at least a reliable way to obfuscate the fact that he’s a relentlessly ineffectual person who has nothing worthwhile to say.
No matter how you slice it, Whiplash is an empty–headed, deranged movie, and Chazelle comes across as an off–kilter fellow indeed. Even the best parts are derivative of Black Swan but with none of the surreal and phantasmagorical moments that make Black Swan an engaging film.
What should be a well–appreciated, finer discussion of topics like artistry, education, sacrifice, inspiration, and accomplishment gets stripped away in favor of tedious spectacle. If it’s not Fletcher’s ranting and raving, it’s a drum getting hurled across a rehearsal room, because *jazz*. All it does for me is make me wonder how anyone has time for something this pretentious, dappy, shallow, and above all just plain clueless.
Here’s one last piece of evidence: Andrew’s “triumphant” final performance features a drum solo that seems to be heavily based on two Buddy Rich solos, the Concert for Americas and West Side Story performances.
Yet before he even meets Fletcher, the film lets us know that Andrew likes to steal licks from Buddy Rich to use in his own playing. Since that’s all he winds up doing by the end of the movie, what did Andrew even learn from Fletcher? How to take a concert and shoehorn in a completely unnecessary, unmusical drum solo? Does being “one of the greats” mean being a good copycat? Was it all just a big waste of time? It sure feels that way…