Whiplash: Blood, Sweat, and Drums

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Now, here’s a weird development. I think everyone who sees the movie would agree that the ending of Whiplash, the first feature of writer-director Damien Chazelle, is a great piece of filmmaking. A final confrontation between a young man and an old master that is as violent and exciting as the final moments of the biggest Hollywood thrillers. The difference is that this confrontation, unlike the adventures of a James Bond or a Jason Bourne, doesn’t involve a single gun or explosion, it takes place entirely at a music concert. Our hero is a young jazz drummer, and his enemy -of sorts- is an excruciatingly demanding music teacher who has brought him to the edge of sanity. I’ve written this paragraph hoping to raise some eyebrows at how the outcome of a jazz concert could be as nail-biting as stopping a nuclear device, but I already knew this writer-director was capable of turning the performance of music into a matter of life and death. After all, Chazelle wrote the screenplay for Grand Pianoa fantastic thriller released earlier this year, in which Elijah Wood must perform a perfect concert in order to save his life.

Anyway, like I was saying, Whiplash ends -excuse the pun- on a high note. And yet, it’s ending leaves a couple of unanswered questions that keep it from being a truly great movie. Don’t get me wrong, Whiplash is a really good movie, and it’s relatively open ending gives us enough hints to develop informed speculations about what happens to the characters after the credits roll… But I must admit that it was a little disappointing that the movie ends at the most interesting moment. I just can’t stop wondering where these characters go from here, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I wasn’t expecting to lose myself in the story of Whiplash, and yet I did in a way that hasn’t happened to me in quite some time.

So let’s talk about the plot. Our protagonist is Andrew (Miles Teller), a young man whose only passion is to become the greatest jazz drummer. He goes to Shaffer, a Julliard-style music school in New York City, where he meets Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the most demanding music teacher you’ll ever meet, but also the head of the most prestigious school ensemble. The one that will get you a job playing jazz music, which is good, since there aren’t many of those. Andrew gets a spot on the band, but Fletcher’s way of getting the best of his students is intense, to say the least. He screams, he shouts, he’s incredibly offensive, and he throws shit at people when they can’t quite play on his tempo.

Andrew won’t give up though, he’s determined to become the next Charlie Parker, and here’s where the thematic undertone of the movie starts to get good. Because who could ever be the next Charlie Parker? Not only was he a once-in-a-lifetime virtuoso, but the world doesn’t care about jazz music anymore. At least not like it used to. All these young people’s hands are bleeding due to long days of uninterrupted practice that will get them to play the most complicated compositions, but what for? Andrew’s whole thing is that he wants to be remembered after he dies. I don’t know if playing the jazz-drums is the way to achieve immortality, but that’s neither here nor there. He’s already in it. He already knows he’s good, and he won’t let Fletcher stop him no matter how hard he tries. And don’t get me wrong, Fletcher is pretty brutal.

While Andrew and Fletcher are duking out on the screen, we can’t escape the voice in the back of our heads that keeps telling us: “all this for playing drums?”. I have a very complicated relationship to music and musicians. I have very little musical talent myself. Just hearing people talk about notes, scales, pitches, tempos makes me start to get nervous. It all feels foreign to me, and so precise that I can’t even imagine how someone could master it. But people do master it. People do practice and they are good, and they are better than others. There’s a moment in the movie where Andrew goes to a family dinner where nobody really understands how important jazz is to him. He talks about winning a jazz competition. “How can you win a music competition. Isn’t it all subjective?” asks his cousin. “No. It’s not” answers Andrew, dead-certain that he can be the very best.

I believe both Andrew and Fletcher are caught in the folly of perfection. Their motives might be different, but all they really want is Andrew to be perfect. At the end… what’s the point? I guess that’s up to you to decide when you see the movie. I highly recommend that you do. Because if nothing else, it’s one of the most entertaining and brisk movies I’ve seen all year. Chazelle is a musical guy -having trained as a jazz drummer himself- and his movie is edited with outstanding concern for rhythm. It moves by at the perfect pace for every scene. For a movie made out mostly of scenes of people playing drums, it is unbelievable how entertaining it is. After Grand Piano and now this, I wonder if Chazelle could make a living out of making strangely disturbing movies about the world of music. He seems to have the talent, and I would love to see him try.

Grade: 7 out of 10

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