Finally saw Whiplash, becoming the last jazz fan (and erstwhile jazz musician) in America to do so, apparently. Before all else, I must commend the film for its portrayal of true jazz, rather than the dumbed-down, "Starbuckian," Kenny G-inflected version that's (a) maligned in the film and (b) present in too many movies that use jazz, or the jazz world, as a venue or back-story. It's the finest portrayal of the medium and the music since Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues, and surely is a better primer in jazz than Lee's film, as Whiplash is less about the lifestyle and more about the idiom's technical core. All in all I rate it a brilliant film that easily transcends its minor flaws.
In particular, aside from the obvious—the disturbingly hypnotic, Oscar-winning performance of J. K. Simmons—I must credit the direction of Damien Chazelle and the cinematography of Sharone Meir for sustaining the film's claustrophobic, OCD intensity scene after scene, rim shot after rim shot. The script is also generally wonderful, though it was a serious blunder to name the [spoiler alert] former student/tragic foil Sean Casey; the name will be a source of unintended humor for those who also happen to be baseball buffs, as it conjures images of the forever-grinning ex-first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds. A terrible fit with the Casey character's purpose in the film and the mood at the moment of his introduction.
|He of the omnipresent grin.|
As to content: As both a musician and a man, I found the film alternately exhilarating and shattering. To be sure, it raises any number of questions about the nature and costs of success, and those questions force me to revisit, if not necessarily modify, some of my prior thoughts/assumptions.
However, I will concede here for the first time—remember where you read this—that the ubiquitous mantra NEVER GIVE UP YOUR DREAMS! is indeed an appropriate message for the small handful of people who never should give up their dreams...which is to say, those who are destined to rise to the top of the field in which their dreams are set. We don't want those people giving up along the way. We want them to leap smoothly over every hurdle, to blow off all of the early criticism, to keep forging ahead even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. So, yes, we want them to be prodded to continue by those, like Terence Fletcher, in positions of influence.
Therefore, I can see someone asking, Well, if we don't know who's destined for greatness, shouldn't we cheer on everyone? (Answer: Still no. For the reasons I've amply cited, in my recent New York Daily News piece and too many other places to list, including an entire chapter in SHAM.)
Other questions that occur:
Does the end justify the means, if the end is greatness?
Will Fletcher's means reliably get a person to the desired end? I.e., is there a method to his sadomasochistic madness?
I'm not sure. How many people who have greatness within them might actually be discouraged from staying the course (if not traumatized forevermore) by a teacher like the bullying, profane, utterly implacable Terence Fletcher? Chazelle anticipates this question and seeks to answer it in the bar scene, late in the movie, where Fletcher states, "If he's the next Charlie Parker he wouldn't be discouraged." But creatives are often sensitive types, not all of whom will be motivated by the chair-hurling, fire-and-brimstone antics of a Terence Fletcher.
Or let me put that another way: Some of them would be so terrified of the man and his methods that they list their drum kits on eBay the night of the first band class. I know personally of two very talented people, one who gave up music and one who gave up sports, because they simply could not deal with the over-the-top behavior of their teacher and coach, respectively.
Now...here's the rub: But was Fletcher ultimately right? Does the fact that they gave up indicate ipso facto that they didn't have what it takes? Does true greatness require, along with talent and effort, a warrior spirit?
Can we know? Isn't this at the last a little bit like the old question about whether the light in the fridge actually goes off when you close the door? Or the (non-GEICO) tree in the forest? In an unforgiving, brutally competitive realm like jazz, do you need to be able to survive a trial by fire in order to reach the pinnacle, in order to be motivated enough to reach deep inside you and unearth that last, most original grace note?
OK, I have one final thought. As a man who, in his youth, spent much time in both the band room and the locker room, I wondered why Whiplash's most dominant theme, other than the pursuit of musical genius, was its gay-bashing, which—at least in my experience—is far more typical of locker room than band room. I wonder about this especially in light of the distinct homo-eroticism of the movie's final scene, as Fletcher, now clearly won over, urges Andrew toward the climax of his renegade drum solo.