Whiplash

Whiplash_poster

Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, tells the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), an aspiring young jazz drummer who is attending a highly prestigious music conservatory in New York. He is picked to be in the school’s premiere jazz band, which is led by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). When Neiman attends his first band practice, Fletcher shows up and immediately begins acting like a sadistic bully. He humiliates Neiman in front of the other band members, slaps him repeatedly, and throws a chair at his head (this is in a crowded room). Over time, Neiman becomes obsessed with trying to live up to Fletcher’s exacting standards. He practices until his hands bleed. He dumps his girlfriend, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), telling her that she’s a distraction from his becoming a great musician. He is rude and insulting to members of his own family. However, Fletcher’s abusive behavior leads to a violent confrontation, which results in Neiman being expelled from the conservatory and Fletcher being fired.

Later, Neiman runs into Fletcher in a jazz club. To Neiman’s surprise, Fletcher is friendly towards him. Fletcher explains (not convincingly) that the reason he was such an asshole was that he was trying to get Neiman to “break through” as a musician. He tells a story about how Joe Jones once threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head when the latter wasn’t playing well. (That wasn’t really what happened, but I’ll let that go.) This motivated Parker to work harder and become a better musician. Fletcher then tells Neiman that he is going to be conducting a band at a jazz festival, and he needs a drummer. He assures Neiman that they will be playing pieces he is familiar with. When Neiman shows up for the performance, however, Fletcher has the band play a piece that Neiman doesn’t know. Neiman realizes that he has been lured into a trap, that Fletcher wants to humiliate him in front of an audience.

Now, I have a few problems with this. First, we are expected to believe that when Fletcher bumps into Neiman, he immediately concocts a scheme to get even with him. We are also expected to believe that Fletcher, an obsessive perfectionist, would deliberately sabotage his own band’s performance – and in front of an audience that has record company executives in it. (And the fact that Fletcher didn’t have him rehearse with the band should have tipped off Neiman that something wasn’t right.) In fact, I found the film’s whole premise – that a teacher would try to inspire his students by acting like a raving lunatic – impossible to believe.

I’m sure that a musician’s life can be stressful and difficult at times. (I imagine this is particularly true in a competitive field like jazz.) Instead of trying to depict this, however, Chazelle has given us an overheated melodrama.

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