Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash asks its audience a timeless question: How far will you go to achieve success? What sacrifices will you make to become great? The film pushes this tired inquiry to its breaking point, and then some. J.K. Simmons plays Fletcher, a cutthroat jazz conductor at one of America’s most competitive music conservatories. Not only does he challenge his students to perform at their best, but his motivational tactics could easily be described as abuse. His cracks attack his students’ sexualities, weight, upbringing, and intellect. He tells one male student, “that note is not your boyfriend’s dick, don’t come early.” Enter Andrew (played by Miles Teller): a hopeful and dedicated first year drummer looking for an opportunity to prove his chops. Fletcher hears him play all of two measures before deciding to give him a chance in his prestigious studio band. Thus begins a manipulative relationship between teacher and student. One man has all the power and the other grovels, sweats, and bleeds to earn his approval. Though Whiplash has some truly extraordinary moments, the hermetic space of the film is so steeped in white, male masculinity that viewers begin to wonder if the film does not condone this as the very definition of success. Whiplash interrogates what it means to succeed and at what cost but does not offer a clear morality of its own. Leaving the question open ended allows the audience to conclude that mistreatment is a viable method to achieve virtuosity.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Producers: Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook, David Lancaster, Michel Litvak
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Cinematographer: Sharone Meir
Editor: Tom Cross
Music: Justin Hurwitz
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Austin Stowell, Nate Lang, Chris Mulkey, Damon Gupton
Premiere: January 16, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: October 10, 2014
US Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
The film opens with a slow tracking shot down a corridor that is reminiscent of Steve McQueen's Hunger. The shot ends with Andrew situated ominously in a dimly lit practice room at the end of a hallway. The camera quickly cuts to Thatcher silently observing the young drummer from the doorway. This opening sequence equates Thatcher with that first, calculating shot and immediately establishes a dynamic between the two men. One is conniving, able to manipulate his subject before he even makes his presence known. The other is earnest, absorbed in his own craft yet eager to please. From this point onward, the diegesis is nearly suffocated by extreme close ups of the two men. The audience can trace the individual beads of sweat that roll down Andrew’s neck and each crease in Thatcher’s face. In both style and content, there is literally no room for other characters. This relationship defines the film.
For the first two thirds, the audience bears witness to Andrew’s struggle to become “one of the greats.” Besides the daily manipulations and taunts from Fletcher, Andrew administers his own forms of self-torture. He practices endlessly until the blood from his hands splatters the drum set. He drives away his girlfriend Nicole because he believes she is a distraction to his success. Even his family members suffer from his delusions of grandeur. At a family dinner, Andrew’s relatives make it evident that they don’t value his career path. Despite this disapproval, he claims he would rather die at the age of 34 like jazz great Charlie Parker with strangers talking about him around the dinner table, than die at 90 with a room full of friends. Like so many egotistical men before him, Andrew dreams of achieving immortality through his music. He is willing to cut off everyone around him to get what he wants.
This all comes to a head when the studio band travels to a prestigious competition. After trying to “bring out the best in Andrew” (a.k.a make him drum as fast as possible in competition with two other drummers until he is drenched in sweat and blood), Thatcher tells him that he has earned the part. When Andrew arrives a few minutes late to the venue, Thatcher threatens to replace him with another drummer unless he is ready in twenty minutes. After a freak accident that leaves Andrew bleeding and frazzled, he makes it onstage just in time to stumble to his seat before the band starts playing. Here Fletcher has an opportunity to prove he is capable of some type of empathy. He has the chance to put value on a human being instead of the success of the band (which is really just a stand-in for his own reputation). But his injured, maniacal drummer who can barely grip his drumsticks is hell-bent on performing. And Fletcher lets him. When Andrew inevitably fails to play well, Fletcher walks up to him and whispers “you’re done.” Vaulting over his drum set, Andrew attacks Fletcher, which results in his expulsion from the conservatory. Finally a chance for him to gain some perspective, right?
This really felt like the film’s opportunity to let Andrew “give up” with grace. He was going to find the strength to walk away from an abusive situation and redefine success on his own terms. He was going to apologize for being a dick to Nicole. He was going to file a lawsuit against Fletcher. He was going to find another jazz ensemble that properly valued and respected his dedication. Some of these things happened. But Andrew abandoning his fucked up relationship with Fletcher was not one of them.
After yet another manipulation from Fletcher while performing onstage, Andrew is granted another chance to walk away. Embarrassed, he retreats backstage when the song is over. But this loop of masculine narcissism and power struggle isn’t over yet. Andrew turns around and reassumes his seat behind the drum set. While Fletcher is apologizing to the audience, Andrew takes up his sticks and starts playing. What follows is nothing short of one of the most incredible musical sequences on film. As Andrew plays, Thatcher shifts from livid to captivated. This is the performance he has been looking for. And what started as a “fuck you” for Andrew quickly grows into an exhilarating collaboration between teacher and student. The band and the audience fade away, but they never really mattered anyway. This is seemingly what Whiplash heralds as success: a sealed world of two power hungry men, willing to go to extremes to realize their dreams. Self-worth and purpose are only achieved through virtuosity. The film, however, fails to acknowledge the self-consuming problems with this worldview, seeming to see Andrew’s final solo as a culmination rather than a surrender.
There are exactly three female characters with speaking roles, one of whom is named. Combined, they probably have no more than a handful of lines. And don’t worry, there is not even an opportunity to fail the Bechdel test as they never have the opportunity to speak to each other. Though this is unfortunately the standard for Hollywood, it proves especially discouraging in juxtaposition to the film’s obsession with the clash of masculinities that is so central. Whiplash portrays a contained space; one not penetrable by anyone except the two protagonists. As the film indulges in this relationship, it is at the cost of everything and everyone else.
But perhaps Whiplash is aware of this dialectic. Fletcher and Andrew’s relationship is royally fucked up but it is that very intensity and danger that make it so compelling. Simmons and Teller perfectly complement each other. They modulate between innocence and manipulation, creating a frustrating and addictive roller coaster. The audience is not granted the satisfaction of knowing what becomes of Andrew and Fletcher’s relationship, leaving the verdict open ended. Is Fletcher a genius whose use of unethical motivational tactics created a musical legend? Are we supposed to celebrate the abuse that results in this phenomenal performance from Andrew? Should Fletcher get any credit? The fact that this conflict even exists begs the question of success. The film takes for granted that its audience believes a dedicated artist should sacrifice everything–even morality–to realize his dreams.