Sidney Lumet, in a discussion of his film Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, once said, “In a well-written drama, the story comes out of the characters. The characters in a well-written melodrama come out of the story.”
Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash then, contrary to overwhelmingly popular opinion, is a not so well-thought-out melodramatic film. It might be riveting, sure, like most things most people aren’t familiar with. That could very well be where Chazelle should be praised: he knew a smattering of music that most people don’t, and enough about sensationalism and human nature to have been able to manipulate most, if not the best, of us. The frequency and manner with which he did, though, is a different story altogether, and one also worth looking into. But let’s leave that for others to do, since this is exclusively a film review blog.
I am able to post such assertions confidently because I was a drummer myself for more than a decade, and have spent two years studying in a music conservatory back in the early 2000s. I know of, and have experienced firsthand, the kind of competition a musical institution which trains in the classical tradition breeds. Reality is not as black and white – literally and figuratively – as that cutout of a Buddy Rich quote the protagonist had up his wall in one scene.
What the film showcased is a self-serving caricature of the kind of competition musicians the world over deal with on a daily basis. The kind of caricature that perpetuates destructive attitudes such as bigotry, racism, masochism and its concomitant sadism by justifying, romanticizing and glorifying them.
Sure, real competition in music can feel cutthroat sometimes, but certainly not to that extent. There are no chair-chucking, verbally abusive mentors in music the way there are in the fields of dance, sports and the military. There are, however, countless ice-cold-efficient and no-quarter-given-merciless musical genuises, they be teachers or no, who emanate the same superior and intimidating atmosphere as most great lawyers, scientists and mathematicians do. This may very well be the vibe given off by the film’s inspiration in the first place, which Chazelle severely misunderstood and eventually twisted to fit his frustrated fantasy of a sadistic master hellbent on his wards’ realization of their potentials, even if the student gets destroyed in the process. Maybe Chazelle wanted to be that good, but failed because his real life mentor was not as much a slave driver as he wanted him to be – a defining trait he eventually wrote into the fictional Fletcher.
See that’s where I found the film so problematic. Music is largely a cerebral endeavor the way sports, dance or boot camp training can never be. Even science backs that up. One can’t even begin to come close to “advanced” musical standing – what more being “one of the greats” – just through sheer, mechanical “going through the motions” the likes of which were repeatedly depicted in the film. There is, in fact, a lot of communing, nurturing, listening, appreciating, critiquing, and of course, hours of actual playing (instead of the wantonly self-indulgent grandstanding viewers are forced to endure in the film) involved in becoming a better musician. It’s as boring as hell to watch for nonmusicians, but is such a thrill to experience. Of course, Chazelle wasn’t too keen to show something like that. There’s no life where there’s no angst or overt plot devices (to hell with realism or credibility) to be exploited and exploded on screen.
So should one assess Whiplash objectively, that person will come to realize that the film, with regards to its story and all around plausibility, only triumphs in people who do not fully grasp or comprehend what they are perceiving. Because if they do, then they would also realize how far from reality the premise was, how contrived the plot was then forced to be and how everything was convolutedly written to stop people from prying into how bad the narrative really was.
If it aimed to be a meditation on music, Jazz in particular, then I can say that it failed quite miserably, since Jazz is essentially the opposite of what it depicted. If it wanted to endorse that kind of a mentor-protege relationship, then it only aggravated things since I don’t see detractors of “tough love” softening their stance with this one – it even does the opposite and polarizes more than it tries to help the two debating sides converge. If it wanted to be a great film, then Chazelle should have written something better: he could’ve sacrificed the story for the characters or characters for the story, not lose them both – which is exactly what he bunglingly managed to do.
For all these failures though, Whiplash did make up with the more technical aspects of film making. The gorgeous and consistent bleak treatment by Hunter Brown, the breakneck pace of closeup upon blistering closeup adding up to a powerfully disorienting visual style by editor Tom Cross, the unapologetically bipolar rollercoaster ride of thick tension and profound affection brought about by the powerful acting duet of Simmons and Teller and the visceral poetry of movement captured by Sharone Meir’s competent hands – all of which were, admittedly, done under Chazelle’s direction – elevated this film from the quagmire it was made to wallow in. It seems Damien Chazelle is quite the brilliant director, but unfortunately is not much of a storyteller, or even a drummer.
For those few glorious gems in an otherwise misguided and misleading film anchored on the romantically motivated yet willfully ignorant fallacy that we need to let go of things that make us human to be an exemplar of the species, I am willing to say that I really liked Whiplash. But only for those things, and not an iota more.
Director: Damien Chazelle | Producer: Jason Blum Helen Estabrook David Lancaster Michael Litvak | Writer: Damien Chazelle | Cast: Miles Teller J.K. Simmons Paul Reiser Melissa Benoist | Camera: Sharon Meir | Music: Justin Hurwitz | Editing: Tom Cross | Production Design: Melanie Paizis-Jones | Art Direction: Hunter Brown | Set Decor: Karuna Karmarkar | Makeup: Tobe West Nacoma Whobrey Traci Smithe | Costume: Lisa Norcia | Production Management: Tamara Gagarin Christopher Warner Mark David Katchur | Sound: Thomas Curley Craig Mann Ben Wilkins | Production: Bold Films Blumhouse Productions Right of Way Films | Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics |Year: 2014 | Length: 107′ | Genre: Drama Music | Spoken Language: English | Subtitles: English | Country: USA