The film Whiplash by Damien Chazelle, is based loosely on his experiences in the Princeton High School Studio Band. The film’s protagonist is Andrew, played by Miles Teller, a gifted young drummer at a fictional music conservatory in New York. His mentor and nemesis is his Studio Band conductor, Terence Fletcher, played by JK Simmons, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance.
As others have pointed out, this isn’t really a film about music. Culture critic Richard Brody, at The New Yorker, said it best: Whiplash misses the mark in large part because music –particularly jazz– is not an individual sport. In this movie, however, the drummer’s job is to be an ultra fast metronome. The rest of the band is completely irrelevant; we don’t know them, we don’t have a reason to care about them, and neither does the protagonist.
In fact, Andrew prides himself on his ability to avoid personal attachments. He dumps his girlfriend so he can spend more time practicing his drums. He alienates himself from his family members by telling them relationships are for suckers who don’t plan to amount to anything.
And yet, it is a relationship –the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher– that drives the entire plot.
Fletcher is a scathing, menacing presence. He frequently bares his muscular arms in a Putin-esque manner; the hints of old school KGB violence are not entirely misplaced. He slaps Andrew across the face to beat the pace he wants into him. He throws chairs and equipment at Andrew’s head (in some kind of perverse homage to a misrepresented historical incident involving the famous jazz musician Charlie “Bird” Parker). He punishes Andrew for the slightest infractions, belittles him, constantly threatens to replace him with one of the two backup drummers.
In previous eras, movies about leaders who use psychological intimidation to get through to detached students (always boys) –for example the 1989 biopic Lean on Me, staring Morgan Freeman as principle “Crazy Joe” Clark– relied on the students finally becoming invested in their own futures, and the leaders being softened by their interactions with the youths. Deep down, these movies tell us, the villains are actually the heroes. In 2015 that plot feels stale.
In Whiplash Andrew is not some young turk; he is a highly disciplined and determined student. And Fletcher’s brutality isn’t covering any secret inner warmth. He remains an unrepentant tyrant to the end.
Theirs is a variation on the BDSM dom/sub relationship. The title “Whiplash” is the first indicator that this film is about what it means to crack the whip and want to feel it crack, wanting it to draw blood. As Andrew practices, he drives himself to the point where blisters on his hands split and gush blood. He then soaks his hands in ice water so he can continue his frantic licks, all through the night.
At one point in the film, when Andrew is late to get to an important performance, suddenly his car gets T-boned by a Mac truck. Rather than waiting for an ambulance, he crawls from the wreckage, dripping blood, and runs to the auditorium, which is only a few blocks away. He plunks down at his drum kit and begins to play with trembling hands. The injured boy drips blood and sweat as he performs, unsuccessfully, for a man who regards him with scorn. We watch as blood collects in a pool on the snare drum and then Andrew finally slumps forward and blacks out.
It is not coincidental that Whiplash came out in the same cycle as Fifty Shades of Gray. These artistic ventures grapple with questions of power and dominance which have particular resonance at this moment in history. This is a time when the national income gap yawns into a chasm wider than we have known since the days of slavery, but at the same time America’s global dominance, both in terms of manpower and money, is undergoing slow motion implosion. At home, old, white men have more capacity to abuse power than they have in centuries, but abroad their reputation is far diminished. How do they navigate their paradoxical helplessness and authority? That is the question these films are, on some level, taking up.
Whiplash has put 30-year-old Damien Chazelle on the map as a filmmaker and screenwriter. Chazelle enjoyed a pre-9/11 adolescence that saw the Million Man March, the budget surplus, the TV show Friends, the ribaldry of an avuncular president’s sex life. Conscious or not, Chazelle, is a product of his time, of the displaced world between his adolescence and the anxieties of what white male privilege means in 2015. It is potent stuff.
Chazelle’s film isn’t stellar, but he is –however obliquely– contending with serious questions that other directors are not. Clint Eastwood, for example, has churned out the banal American Sniper, a comforting, jingoistic, historical lie that only a man willing to berate an empty chair for its dangerously liberal politics could create. Eastwood scrambles to fabricate a make-believe America where homosocial white power panic is neither real nor necessary. In his universe, soldiers are heroes, violence is justified, and there are actual bad guys who are definitely not us (or him). Chazelle does not take this route.
In the final scenes of Whiplash, both Fletcher and Andrew have been ejected from the conservatory, each as the result of the other’s actions. They run into one another at a jazz dive and Fletcher invites Andrew to play in a prestigious gig that could make or break his career.
Of course his magnanimity is a ruse; Fletcher lures Andrew on stage only so he can begin a piece for which his student does not have the music. Andrew does his best to fake his way through, to disastrous effect. Humiliated, he flees the stage, into his father’s warm and loving arms. But he leaves behind childish things, turns around, runs back to his kit and launches into another piece. He drags the reluctant band along with him, thundering over Fletcher, who is trying to pacify the music moguls in the audience.
As Fletcher realizes he can’t stop Andrew, he tries to wrest control away from his pupil and reassert himself as the leader of the ensemble. But Andrew doesn’t stop even when the piece seems to end. Instead he plays on and on, mounting a frenetic drum solo that rises into an orgasmic frenzy. He locks eyes with Fletcher and mouths the words “fuck you,” which, in fact, seems to be the intent, though the intercourse between the two is conducted through musical instruments, rather than through actual physical intimacy (a boundary Chazelle does not seem to understand he could cross). As Andrew finally finishes his performance, there is a moment of stillness before a smash cut to black. Then the credits roll over yet more jazz.
Chazelle ends Whiplash with a complicated expression of the current male crisis. I suspect Chazelle did this unintentionally, but that doesn’t reduce its value or import.