Spoiler Scale (How spoilery is this article on a scale of 1 to 10?): 8
The screen is black. There is the sound of a single wooden drumstick striking a snare. Then again. Then again, faster. And faster. A train is leaving the station …
“One night in 1937, a teenage musician called Charlie Parker joined a queue of players waiting to jam onstage at Kansas City’s Reno Club. It was a special occasion. A star guest in the rhythm section was Jo Jones, drummer for Count Basie’s Orchestra, one of the biggest swing bands in the US. Charlie Parker thought his moment had come, 16 years old or not. He had been practising an improv method of his own, deploying keys rarely used in jazz tunes, and modulating between them to free up new ways of phrasing – and he’d bought a new Selmer saxophone. When his turn came, he blew a chorus over the chords of I Got Rhythm that Jones, to judge by the warming of his wave-like cymbal sound, seemed to like. Then Parker introduced a passing chord, improvised fluently in a new key, and sensed the audience’s and the band’s intrigued surprise. But now he’d left the world he knew. A college-trained musician could have called out the next chord to him in an instant, but Parker was a high school dropout making it up for himself. While Jones’s pulse surged on behind him, the teenager lost the tune, and then the beat. Jones stopped, and Parker froze, clutching his gleaming new saxophone. Jones contemptuously threw a cymbal at his feet, and the reverberations were followed by the sound of laughter and catcalls. Ross Russell, Charlie Parker’s biographer, has the teenager leaving the club saying to himself, ‘I’ll be back’ …”
– from number 11 of The Guardian’s 50 key events in the history of Jazz music, by John Fordham (June 16, 2011)
This legend is referenced on multiple occasions in writer/director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash – that is, with one notable embellishment: the cymbal is not thrown at Parker’s feet, but at his head (“nearly decapitates him”). But details are of minor importance when it comes to legends, and notwithstanding its Sundance-friendly indie-ish aesthetic, Chazelle’s own tale of an ambitious young jazz musician (Miles Teller’s Andrew) revels in its own mythical vibe.
In large part, Whiplash is an exercise in contrasts – most notably, between father figures. In one corner is Andrew’s real father, Mr. Neyman (Paul Reiser), to whom we are introduced – rather self-referentially – in the opening montage. Neyman is nurturing, supportive, and comforting; but their interactions and activities as father and son are distinctly passive.
And yet relative to his own family, Andrew feels like he lives on another planet. On that world, the competition jazz band conductor, Mr. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), is both God and Devil.
The simple attire is indicative of a no-nonsense approach – but notwithstanding the sincerity/insincerity of the good intentions that he wears on those short sleeves, there is plenty of nonsense to Fletcher. For him, great collaborative art can only be born from manipulation – the tandem appeal to, and destruction of, the individual performer’s ego. That said, Andrew becomes aware of Fletcher’s approach early in their relationship, and not only signs up for it, but embraces it – that is, until his own limitations get the better of him. And when Andrew later chooses to follow the advice of his father to become the victim, he is sentenced to his own personal purgatory – a life of mediocrity.
Chazelle also draws a contrast between Andrew and Nicole (Melissa Benoist) – the object of his affection. The 19 year-old Andrew saw the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory as first and only option in charting his future; Nicole thrust herself from Arizona into New York City’s Fordham U. for no real reason other than the latter is not the former. Andrew aspires to be one of the greatest jazz drummers ever; Nicole has no major and no idea where she is going. Andrew’s pursuits place him at least six decades behind his own time (in terms of both nature and degree); Nicole is the typified Millennial.
There is no denying a fundamental incongruence in the ethos of these two generations, as Chazelle tends to portray their moments of attraction in opposing profile shots. That said, with a subtle sense of irony, Chazelle also questions our assumptions about such group identities. For example, as Nicole drops a hint about the type of mother she had, Chazelle suggests that perhaps roles of nature and nurture may be too complex to take too seriously, and perhaps the one commonality they do share is a need to withdraw and distinguish themselves from their parents.
With all of the well-earned tension generated from the conflicting forces inside and outside of Andrew, the film’s finale is everything that it needs to be. The setting is Carnegie Hall, but the emotional arc is all Rocky (1976). To be sure, Chazelle never cheats us with the stakes of Andrew’s pursuit – e.g., no girlfriend appears at the last minute to support her man. And although the duel of the father figures comes to a head in fight film fashion, neither side wins. When Andrew takes a debilitating blow – naively betrayed by his own betrayal – he drifts off to the unconditional embrace of Neyman awaiting stage right. But just before the count reaches ten, a wisdom that even the young possess takes over Andrew – the wisdom of the moment. Like Rocky Balboa in that final round of his once-in-a-lifetime shot at the world champion, the battle for victory vis-a-vis Fletcher is ultimately subsumed by the struggle for dignity – the very core of identity, the baseline of artistic expression. Andrew must pull himself back up the ropes and walk back to that kit. When that happens, the band is his. And not even Fletcher can stop that train.
Your point about Andrew and Nicole is interesting. I am a millennial and Nicole’s sense of untetheredness might make her a typical millennial, but that doesn’t necessarily make her a good character. The movie is uninterested in why she’s so aimless unless it is in direct contrast with why Andrew is so focused. While that’s kind of interesting in and of itself, it doesn’t make her or her, what, three scenes actually compelling given what’s happening in the rest of the film. I liked the dinner with the family friends a lot better in terms of contrasting Andrew’s life and goals with other people his age.
On a thematic level, I tried to use the less certain word “typified” (as opposed to “typical”?) to describe Nicole because I think, in Chazelle setting up that contrast with Andrew, he’s not necessarily making any conclusions or any value judgments. (Technically, Andrew is also a Milennial, so what does that really mean?) I agree that the dinner with family also serves that contrasting – or from Andrew’s perspective, isolating – function well. … On an emotional level, I think that we’re suppose to relate to Nicole as a character ONLY in so much as it allows us to relate to Andrew. So yes – there are just four scenes, with the beats being: (1) Andrew really likes a likable girl named Nicole, notwithstanding their differences; (2) Andrew attributes his own sense of impending failure to Nicole and breaks up with her; (3) Andrew regrets dumping her; and (4) most importantly, as a consequence of every choice he has made, Andrew will never get the girl he wants back. Did we really need to know enough to sympathize with her? I mean, we don’t really know why Fletcher is the way he is, but does it matter? Just some thoughts … And I think that building up all this tension with these contrasts (the father figures, the generational identities) ends up being reduced down to one primary consideration – the relationship between individual dignity/identity and artistic expression. (The scene where Fletcher makes the trombone player leave the room in shame sort of anticipates this.) For this reason, I am okay with the film ultimately being all about Andrew – I mean, this is where the ending takes us, Andrew on the drum kit all alone.
I certainly can’t argue with much of that. You make some compelling points. I guess maybe, then, it comes down to execution rather than intent or meaning. You remark in the bulk of your review that these scenes are filmed in a specific manner and for specific reasons, and I buy that, but when the rest of the movie is so explosive in terms of pace and editing and close ups and volume, these scenes can’t help but feel less than, don’t you think? You might say that this is also on purpose, that it gives us a necessary valley so that the peaks could be that much higher. That’s a tough thing to consider, though. I’d have thought that a kid like Andrew would have as much passion in his love life as he does in his playing. Or at least the film might have hinted that he could have had that passion before he used it all up on the drumming. Instead, it has him lay out this laundry list of the ways the relationship will die and it all seems so rote and boring. Like, there isn’t any other way that might have gone? That scene would have been more meaningful if the first interaction was more passionate or if that list weren’t such a standard version of the same old chestnut.
I just see Andrew as being 19 – i.e., perhaps still caught in the zone between idolizing and visualizing, driven but imbalanced. If he was that into jazz, I imagine he probably didn’t have a lot of friends in high school, as he definitely feels awkward with Nicole at the theater and the pizza parlor … Reading your original review, it sounds like the rhythm of the film was a bit off for you. I agree that the scenes with Nicole – and actually, the scenes with his father, as well – are definitely valleys. I think I was talking to others on letterboxd back when we saw it a couple of months ago, and we were hooked on the lead-up to that crazy finish that we really didn’t see coming (although I probably should have). I think that lack of consciousness about the pacing while the film is going is absolutely key to the subjective connection to the film.
I think I knew going in that it was basically a sports movie transplanted to the arts, which is an idea I like a heck of a lot. Maybe, based on that knowledge, I was more eager to get to the “games” rather than the off-the-court stuff. I wonder how those scenes would play upon a rewatch. I still think they probably could have gotten a better actress for Nicole. Paul Reiser was so good in his few scenes that any time spent with her felt more like time that might have been better spent with him. And, of course, I still really really liked the movie.
Completely understand your choice, it was such a great movie. Recently rewatched it and it is just as good the second time around. The thing is that there are a lot of people who have that drive and don’t want anything to stop them, even if that means not thinking personal relationships are important. It is a thrilling ride with awesome performances by both leads. J.K. Simmons outdoes the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket 😉
It was just such an exhilarating experience for me the first time around, I’m kind of afraid to do a rewatch!
No worries, it will do the same the second time around