Whiplash is the story of one single-minded drummer’s quest to please his scary jazz dad. It’s so tempting to interpret it as being about more than that. To find in it allusions to, say, the male power dynamic, truths about hazing, a meditation on coaching styles, trying to recreate family in social groups, being loved vs. being feared, whether a team’s success defines a coach’s legacy or whether the players he breaks do, the Joe Jackson phenomenon, etc., etc. As I was watching it, I was reminded both of Joan Didion’s essay about the Central Park jogger case, specifically her characterization of New York City as a place controlled by various insider rackets dedicated to fleecing rubes and outsiders, and Susan Faludi’s report about The Citadel, where a group losing sway in wider society tends to compensate with increasingly harsh recruiting techniques (if membership in a club becomes less prestigious, members can at least make it seem more exclusive). Both of which are nice parallels for JK Simmons’ fraternity of SEAL-team fanatical jazz bros that Miles Teller is trying to pledge in Whiplash, this sort of hypermasculine funhouse take on Fame.
The beauty of Whiplash is that it invites you to dream up all manner of these kinds of analogies and parallels, but none are quite right. It defies your expectations by existing wholly unto itself. Just when you think it’s going to go more broad, it gets more specific. Is it a metaphor? An allegory? A meditation? What is it trying to tell me? …Oops, no, it really is just a wild story about a crazy drummer trying to please his scary jazz dad at a weirdly intense music school. That it’s entertaining as that and only that is part of its appeal. Not since Black Swan has there been a movie that so successfully used its own myopic intensity as an artistic choice. World? THERE IS NO WORLD, YOU ARE THE DRUMS NOW!
Simmons, of course, as you might have heard by now, plays Terence Fletcher (great jazz name, by the way), a psychotically demanding instructor at the Shaffer Conservatory, “the best music school in the country,” where he’s trying to mindf*ck Miles Teller into becoming the next Buddy Rich. Fletcher is a real Bill Parcells type, who spends half the movie screaming or throwing things, and part of me is annoyed that it took such a “big” role for people to notice JK Simmons. He’s been fantastic in everything from Spider-Man to Juno, and it’s just so typical of the awards-voter demographic not to recognize greatness in any actor who isn’t screaming in their face or playing an autistic leper dying of AIDS. But that’s more a knock on awards voters than Simmons in this part, who’s just as charming while exuding quiet menace during the softer parts as he is when calling Miles Teller a “faggot-limbed retard” for not being able to play a double-time swing. He’s creatively vulgar and charmingly psychotic, like the love-child of George Clooney and R. Lee Ermey, and the way he makes you vicariously vacillate between “this man’s trying to destroy me” and “the way he’s meanest to me must mean he cares for me the most” like an abused spouse is what propels the movie forward. LOUD soft LOUD soft LOUD soft – he’s like a human Pixies song. I also find it’s enjoyable to imagine the whole film as a prequel to Oz, but that’s neither here nor there.
There’s an inherent hilariousness to the idea that this fanatical tyrant and his equally fanatical protegé both exist within the world of jazz. During one of his quiet moments, Fletcher tells Teller’s Andrew Neiman that “the two most harmful words in the English language are ‘good job,'” and says of the cult of self-esteem, “this is why jazz is dying.”
Hmm, have you ever considered that maybe jazz is dying because the most visible people still playing it are using it not as a tool for artistic expression but as a dick-measuring device for who can play the weirdest scale and fastest drum fill within the context of a 50-year-old song? Fletcher’s favorite anecdote is that “Charlie Parker didn’t become Bird until Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head,” and Neiman smarmily shits on his peers’ provincial dreams of football and Rhodes scholarships at a family dinner because he dares to dream bigger, of becoming the next Buddy Rich (as judged by 25 New York jazz fanatics, presumably). That neither of them seems to recognize that all the Buddy Riches and Charlie Parkers of the world died before Miles Teller was born and none of the “next so-and-sos” came out of an expensive conservatory in Lincoln Center makes their pompousness so much more entertaining. At first you sort of root for the real world to give them some perspective on their jazz boot camp OOH RAH fantasy, but the scenes where real world concerns are a factor (the dinner party scene, especially) are the weakest of the film. They seem stilted, out of sync, distractions. Paul Reiser? Ugh, go away, Paul Reiser. Whiplash not only builds this myopic world of petty jazz beefs, it forces you to live inside of it. Miles Teller has a girlfriend for about two seconds, and after about 1.5 of them you’re ready to say “Okay already, enough with the kissy kiss, take me back to the time signatures.” The real world is not the point.
For all the time you spend wondering what Whiplash is about and what it might mean and how it relates to your own experiences, it’s best once you let go of all that and just enjoy Miles Teller’s journey. Eventually, after two hours of blood, blisters, breakdowns, and countless V-neck t-shirts (you’ve never seen so much frenzied grimacing outside of a porn film), you come to the realization along with Andrew Neiman, that Scary Jazz Dad cannot be contented through obedience alone. Try as you might to submit meekly and play dead, for all his bluster, what Scary Jazz Dad really wants is a combination of obedience, competence, and willfulness, a bully secretly searching for someone who’ll stand up to him. It’s really a shame they didn’t have sex at the end.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. You can find more of his work on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.