As a teenage “rock musician” who spent a lot of time in his high school band room, I think I always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder when it came to those who I’d describe as “real musicians”. And even more so, I think I felt a little inferior to any musician my age who could play jazz, since it’s always been a style of music I’ve admired and still come back to when a certain mood or feeling calls for it. But most of all, I think my relationship with jazz and jazz musicians has always been somewhere along the lines of “I could never do what those guys do and shouldn’t even try”. Which I’m sure almost singularly has to do with the fact that to be respectable jazz musician, you not only need to be able to improvise and collaborate with others, but most of all you have to have chops. Now, I’m sure most people would agree that chops can’t be taught. Chops can be practiced and honed, and in most cases are informed by some sort of innate talent, but to truly have chops, you have to push yourself as far as your body, mind, and spirit will take you. And after seeing the exhausting, abusive lengths that one musician is pushed to in the sheer name of jazz greatness in Whiplash, I think I can safely say that I’m perfectly fine with the fact that I’ve never had chops and never will have chops.
Andrew (Miles Teller), the jazz musician in question’s instrument of choice happens to be the drums, an instrument that seems perfectly suited to the film’s kinetic, unrelentingly rhythmic nature, as it follows his first year at the fictional Shaffer Music Academy. After being quickly picked out by Fletcher, the school’s resident hardass jazz conducter (J.K. Simmons), Andrew finds himself constantly fighting to be part of the band’s core, as Fletcher seems to be intent on playing mind games with Andrew in order mold him into a better drummer. And in spite of the insurmountable standards that Fletcher has set for his band, Andrew consistently rises to the occasion while shedding the literal blood, sweat, and tears that consume his desire to please this unflappable teacher.
First off, you’d probably make the connection that casting J.K. Simmons as a disapproving hardass is maybe not the most inspired casting decision, but sometimes it’s just fun to see a great character actor sink his teeth in to a role he was meant to play, and really get to stretch out and lay into the character. Also, unlike a lot of Simmons’ admittedly gruff characters, writer/director Damien Chazelle never really softens up in letting the audience know that the vitriolic Fletcher might just be a bit misunderstood. Instead, we see the character in a more human light just in small glimpses, yet it never overrides the hateful, homophobia-laden insults that come out of Fletcher’s mouth — many of which would come off as pretty funny if he wasn’t so god damn hard to like.
I’d say the movie makes a wise choice by setting the film in a fictional music academy instead of Juilliard or something, because it sets up the idea that this movie exists in a slightly heightened version of reality. Because sure, I and pretty much anyone who has studied any sort of creative endeavor can tell you, there are those teachers out there who push their students hard — probably harder than they deserve to be pushed. But rather than being a year in the life of a young jazz musician in 2014, the extremities of this movie I think push it more in to a sort of allegory. The kind that asks what it means to be truly great at something when being judged against the cold realities of what a jaded, bitter mentor’s idea of greatness is. And maybe this slight disconnect from reality makes for a couple cliched “giving up the dream” moments later on in the film, but I think it’s ultimately what makes Whiplash feel almost like this primal force of nature.
And there are a lot of factors to thank for the unrelenting intensity of this movie. The cinematography and editing for one, seem to be working in perfect unison with the music here, as Chazelle clearly has a handle on what makes jazz such a potentially thrilling art form, even if jazz purists will probably shit on this movie because jazz purists are unpleasable douchebags much like J.K. Simmons’ character. But most importantly, it’s a movie that makes you feel. It makes you feel the intensity of the music, and it makes you feel all the high’s and low’s that come with being young and ambitious and wanting to be great at that one thing you’re convinced you’re great at, even if it means getting a chair thrown at your head by J. Jonah Jameson.