Not my fucking tempo!

I rewatched Whiplash to write this review, even without me needing to in the slightest. There’s your first hint as to how the rest of this review is going to go. Whiplash appeared on the scene early 2014 at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award; from there, it rode a slight wave of praise from the festival all the way to its October release date, where the praise and accolades it received positively catapulted to the stars, and it received a number of solid category nominations at the Academy Awards, including being one of only 8 films that year nominated for Best Picture. Truly, Whiplash was the little film that could. So, is the film itself worth all that’s been said about it; is it worth the watch? To respond to that question with a mere yes is to criminally undersell what Whiplash manages to achieve as an entertainment product. I intended only to watch Whiplash to gather notes for this review, which I was able to do; what I wasn’t counting on was getting swept back up into the action, the emotion, and the wave of adrenaline that all caused me to start shaking slightly during my watch, especially during the film’s climax, which I’ve seen many viewers and reviewers regard as one of the most spine-chillingly awesome endings of any film out of 2014. You might wonder how a little indie film about jazz musicians can achieve this effect, through the film and through its ending. All I can say is, watch Whiplash. You will understand.

Andrew Neiman is a first-year student at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, regarded as the top music school in the country (I got a definite vibe of Juilliard from the reputation of Shaffer passed around in the film). A drummer in one of the school’s jazz ensembles, he dreams of being the next Buddy Rich; a dream that takes its first steps towards realization when Andrew is picked out of his class to join Shaffer’s top studio jazz band by its conductor, Terence Fletcher. Fletcher has quite the shining reputation inside the school and outside in the jazz circles, but Andrew learns firsthand the lengths that Fletcher will go to toward his students to achieve true greatness from them, and when Andrew basically becomes Fletcher’s protege and primary case study, he begins to lose his humanity and his sanity in his quest to win Fletcher’s approval and to achieve true greatness. Right from the first scene, the film fully establishes the central conflict and dynamic between the two main characters, leaving the film no other option but to let that initial impression grow and climb through the rest of the film, which turns out to be an excellent decision given how the conflict develops. The construction of the film is very indie, featuring quite a few shots that might come up in a Youtube parody of independent films, but you know what; when the result is this goddamn good and effective, any flaws in the film’s production and execution fall by the wayside. That the film is relatively simplistic and straightforward in its construction, I believe, allows the film’s true merits to shine through, amusingly enough given the musical focus, thanks to the film’s rudiments. There is not a note out of place in this film, a line in the wrong spot, a shot out of sequence, a camera move not purposefully done, and that the film is as well constructed as it is even being as basically constructed as it is is a testament to how well it ultimately works. I’m a sucker for great editing, especially if it’s in time with the music, and great editing in time with the music is basically the pitch for Whiplash’s final cut; this win for Best Film Editing at the Oscars was absolutely no contest. Another Oscar win that wasn’t even a contest is J.K. Simmons’ win for Best Supporting Actor; as Terence Fletcher, Simmons is an absolute monster of a villain, in every sense the word monster can be taken, and as a fan of Simmons’ work in other films and roles, I’m ecstatic that he was given a character like this that he could really knock it out of the park with. Opposite of Simmons as Andrew, Miles Teller also really impressed me, especially since I basically didn’t know who he was before this film. If you’re one to think of Teller in only his minor roles in franchises or as Reed Richards in the latest Fantastic Four disaster-of-a-film, don’t; he really gives Simmons a run for his money in almost every scene, and that he was apparently a self-taught drummer makes his effort all the more remarkable.

I’ve been thinking of how to close out this review of Whiplash ever since it was added to the list, and what I’ve decided to do is something that I don’t think I’ve ever done on this site up to this point; I’m going to call out my fellow 1001 reviewers on their reviews of this film. Of the two that have been posted so far (that I know of, at least), along with some of the comments on them, both generally appreciated the film’s merits and construction, but took great offense to the central lesson that they saw the film trying to get across: that the unrelenting abuse Fletcher heaps upon Andrew in order to get him to improve himself (in Fletcher’s words) beyond what is expected of him not only works, but is ultimately a good thing. Here’s my response to that, and it’s going to take several sentences to get to my point. Does the film endorse this idea? I don’t know, but I can definitely see how many have thought so; I can absolutely say that the film definitely doesn’t argue against it. Are Andrew and Fletcher both generally horrible people, and is Andrew’s horrible-ness ultimately what causes him to respond to Fletcher’s methods? Yes, absolutely. Does Andrew achieve greatness, and thus are the tactics used by Fletcher ultimately successful, and therefore justified in the context of the film? Yes. Now, here’s my point: does any of this mean that Whiplash is not an absolutely outstanding film? No. Not in the slightest. We’ve all watched plenty of films with absolutely horrendous main characters, absolutely twisted villains, and absolutely repugnant central lessons that the film bases its story and structure on. But, and here’s the kicker; if the film or those characters/performances are truly well done above and beyond not even your average film but your really good ones, then it will and should be revered as a great film. People don’t hold Triumph of the Will to as high a standard as they do because they can totally get behind the central message of that film; they do so because it was a revolutionary documentary and propaganda film, and one that, despite its central message, continues to influence documentaries and films to this day. That, is truly a film of the times, and Whiplash, even with its central message, is absolutely a great film. Yes, I agree that people shouldn’t be reading into the film’s message as something that they should be taught is a good thing or the right thing to do. But to discount the achievement that Whiplash is purely as a piece of entertainment or to take stars off the rating of it because one finds themselves against the morality of the central players or villains of the piece is, to be frank, unfair. Whiplash has my vote as quite possibly the best all-around film of 2014, and it sure as hell earned it, even if I as a person would’ve walked out of Fletcher’s classroom after the first bout of abuse he hurls at that trombone player, and been right in doing so. It doesn’t matter; whatever way you slice it, this is unquestionably a magnificent film, and even with its message and central characters, it’s one I can watch over and over again and still get chills every time I do.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10


6 thoughts on “Whiplash

  1. I’m sure I’m one of those posters you are “calling out”. I’ll just say that I completely disagree that the movie is indisputably great even if the characters are hateful and the message is horrible. I actually RAISED my rating to three stars and recommended it because of how well it was made and constructed. Had I disregarded those aspects of the film and simply went by how much I hated the characters and message I would have rated it much lower than three stars. As for your example of a horrible message movie that we still all praise, I disliked Triumph of the Will and gave it only two stars, one less than Whiplash.

    My disagreement with you boils down to this one sentence in your review: “Does Andrew achieve greatness, and thus are the tactics used by Fletcher ultimately successful, and therefore justified in the context of the film? Yes.”

    The whole point to me is that it absolutely, 100% does NOT justify his actions. Nothing does. I have never been a believer in “the ends justify the means” and this film certainly did not change my mind.

    • I probably shouldn’t have used the words “calling out”; it’s a little too strong of a negative implication, but I couldn’t figure out a better way to phrase it. If you or anyone else took offense to that, I apologize.

      To me, it seems that the people who take offense to Whiplash and its central message are taking it a little too much to heart or too personally. That, more than anything, is what I tried to get across with my closing paragraph; that, when it comes down to trying to objectively assess a film’s merits, you can’t take a film personally, either through its central message or through the actions of its characters. Taking that too personally is the exact opposite of objective, and, a few likely exceptions aside, I try to be as objective as I can be when I approach a film (well, not all films, but definitely ones that I know I have to review). The sentence you quoted out of my review is a good example; I try to be very specific with the words I use, in everyday speech and in my reviews, and I specifically wrote that sentence the way I did, with the word justified followed by “in the context of the film”. In real life, are Fletcher’s actions justifiable? Hell no. In the film, however, one will find it impossible to argue that Fletcher’s methods do not work on Andrew and have tangible results at the end, and the smile that Fletcher and Andrew exchange right before the final shot is the film’s way of saying that, in the world of the film, yes, the ends do justify the means. And, to repeat what I tried to elaborate on in my review, this doesn’t mean that people should be taking lessons from this film on how to achieve greatness just because, in the film, the ends do justify the means. It’s a film, not real life; there should and needs to be a layer of separation between the two (Boyhood aside), and just because things are okay in a film absolutely does not mean they are okay in real life. I’ve shown Whiplash to a number of people who hadn’t seen it, and discussed it with several more who had, and virtually every person loved the film, sometimes enough to want to watch it again; because they took Whiplash for what I did and what I believe it is really trying to be: an entertainment product, and nothing more. And as an entertainment product, not a propaganda piece or moral lesson, Whiplash works immensely.

      And yeah, I know that technically any assessment of a film’s merits is almost by definition subjective, but I’m still a believer in the idea that a general consensus of a film’s merit and entertainment value is able to form because of factors that transcend and are outside subjectivity. Anyone is free to dislike Citizen Kane, but, to me, they are not free to say that it sucks or that it is a poorly made film. While that is an opinion, it is, to be frank, an incorrect one. Too many people have dissected Kane to the umpteenth degree and found greatness there for one person to say that the film is awful and everybody else is wrong.

      As for Triumph of the Will, I was trying to make the point that it is a film with a horrible message that we _should_ all be praising. I didn’t like it either, for extremely obvious reasons, but I was able to be objective about its power and effect, and especially about how influential it ended up being for pretty much every documentary that followed it, and I ended up giving it an 8. A quick view on Letterboxd shows generally scattered ratings, but with a noticeable majority in the 3-to-4 star range, so I’m certainly not the only one who ended up there. It’s not a pleasant watch, not at all, but it’s extremely effective at what it’s trying to do, and you have to take that into account when you try and decide whether or not it is a truly great film. Whiplash, I find, falls into the same classifications, and if one takes it the way I said before that I did, as a pure entertainment piece, then, again, judging it by how well it works at what it tries to do, it really, really works.

      • “when it comes down to trying to objectively assess a film’s merits, you can’t take a film personally”

        This, again, is at the heart of our different reactions to the film. I am not trying to be a professional critic, nor have I taken a film criticism class. My reaction to a film, and subsequent rating of it, is COMPLETELY personal. While I can intellectually acknowledge some positives (as I did with Whiplash when recommending it), those never override my basic dislike for a film, if I have one. It works the same in reverse. I can intellectually acknowledge that the Charlie Brown Christmas Special is poorly animated, has a disjointed story, and is filled with what our cynical world would now call complete corniness, but I love it and I don’t care about those other things. It gets five stars from me despite its shortcomings.

        • I can understand and get behind that; off the top of my head, I know I admitted some definite personal bias in my rating of The Sound of Music, and there’s probably a few other examples. What bothered me the most about the handful of mid-to-negative Whiplash reviews I’d read was how they all seemed convinced that Damien Chazelle was trying to, for lack of a less blunt way of putting it, indoctrinate viewers to the idea that unrelenting abuse a la Terence Fletcher is a good thing and worth it. Whenever I watch Whiplash, all I see is Chazelle trying to make the most entertaining film that he can; that’s all. That’s the big difference I was getting between people like me and my friends who loved it and the small-but-solid percentage that seemed to be refusing to acknowledge just how good a film and how well-made an entertainment product it is. But, like you said, there are a few less-than-stellar reviews that do point out how good the technicals are, so it might’ve just been me taking it too personally. 🙂

  2. I think the message is a bit deeper than “abuse will make you great”. Andrew may have turned into an excellent drummer, but he has also turned into the same type of lonely asshole as Fletcher. I commend the movie on showing this price tag, but I am also concerned that some will read from the movie that abuse ultimately pays off. Thus the ambivalence.
    I loved the music, but then I am a sucker for classic jazz.

    • Oh, I agree; Andrew pretty much intentionally goes down the path that Fletcher is almost literally forcing him down, and he is pretty much exactly on the road to “dying drunk & broke at 34” just like the dinner table argument with his family. Andrew absolutely pays a price for the ending of the film and everything that’s implied to come after. What I don’t agree with is that the film is actively trying to teach the lesson that some people are taking away from it. If people read into the film and get the message that abuse like this pays off and is good for you, and then choose to absorb this lesson themselves or, worse, teach it to other more impressionable people, that’s something that they’ve done themselves; it’s not the fault of the film, or Chazelle for deciding upon the image that he decided to paint or the way in which he depicts it. That’s my stance on it.

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