Movie Review - Whiplash

Miles Teller stars as Andrew Neiman, an aspiring drummer at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City. He's chosen for a Jazz band led by Terence Fletcher, played by JK Simmons. Fletcher is brutal and harsh with his band members. He constantly emasculates them. He throws out every homophobic and curse word he can. He uses scare tactics and physical threats. The band members just sit and take it. Supposedly, they do so because Fletcher has connections, but never is a case made for him being the end-all-be-all. The minute he turned physically threatening, by way of throwing a chair, he should have been reported and possibly arrested.

When it comes to Andrew, Fletcher is highly manipulative, cruel and torturous. It's all in the name of pushing him to be the best and Andrew adopts this philosophy and starts to be cruel and torturous, mainly to himself. He sheds a lot of blood, sweat and tears all to become the best Jazz drummer ever, and he won't let anything stop him.

The question is what is the best and how does he or anyone measure it. Often, throughout this movie, I questioned if what they were doing was music or if it was just an endurance test. I don't know much about Jazz music, but I assume there is more to it than being able to play the drums fast, but all we ever see Fletcher scream is "Faster!" The front-line of a lot of Jazz bands consists of brass and reed instruments like the trumpet and the saxophone. Yet, there's only one scene involving a saxophonist or horn player, and it's brief.

Many of the most famous Jazz musicians from Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie were all horn players. A lot of other famous Jazz musicians were piano players. Most were also African-American. Yet, this movie is all about white people, and this one particular white person who's going to save Jazz from its Starbucks doldrums. The one main Jazz artist singled out in the movie was Charlie Parker who was a saxophonist. Yet, the movie also name-checks Buddy Rich, a white Jazz drummer, but I didn't get why this movie was all about the drums. Drums, as all instruments, are important in a band, but what distinguishes the drums here in this Jazz ensemble from drums in any rock band?

Fletcher hammers Andrew on his drums, more so than any other. Why isn't he hammering the saxophonists, even when one is revealed to be playing his saxophone out of tune? With all the lip-servicing veneration of Jazz, there isn't much veneration of it at all in this movie. There isn't consistency to Fletcher either. He just seems to be mostly a sadist whose target is Andrew. At one moment, Fletcher talks to a little girl and says he hopes she could be his student. My question is if Fletcher would say the vile, sexual things he says to Andrew to that girl, and if he would throw a chair at her.

It also makes Fletcher somewhat blind. It becomes evident that Andrew is so dedicated that in addition to torture, Andrew wouldn't even let a full-on, car crash stop him from being a great drummer and proving Fletcher wrong. Yet, Fletcher doesn't recognize that, even when it's plain as day and Andrew is literally bleeding on the drums. Still, Fletcher is sadistic and dismissive of Andrew's drive and talent. It makes the final sequence, though well-edited and well-acted, ultimately a drag.

I also didn't understand what about the length of that scene equated to this idea of greatness, particularly greatness in music, such as Jazz. Is their some equation that factors in endurance and being able to do something over and over for a long time? It's meant to be impressive, but it's clear narcissism and self-aggrandizing. It's also self-aggrandizing in a venue that probably caters mostly to a wealthy white audience.

It goes back to a dinner scene with Andrew and his family, or at least close members to Andrew's father, played by Paul Reiser. It's not clear if Andrew separates the idea of greatness from the idea of fame. As I said previously, the idea of well-known or famous, Jazz drummers, particularly white ones, are extremely few and incredibly far between. The average person is probably not going to be able to name off the top of his head a famous Jazz drummer, and if he does, it won't be from Andrew's generation.

Andrew has got to be aware of the music industry, so the question of greatness for Andrew has to be asked. For whom and in what circles does he want to seem great? It appears that the answer for both is Fletcher and fellow wealthy or well-off, white people, which I suppose is fine, but I don't get why Fletcher and that white crowd is seemingly the only path for Andrew.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for strong language including some sexual references.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 46 mins.


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