Sometimes I come late to movies and the wait probably colors the experience. When Whiplash came out a few years ago it seemed like a movie I needed to see. It was critically praised, an Oscar winner, and about music. Sounded like it was right up my alley. But it slipped under my radar until, a few weeks ago, it popped up on TV (uncut) and I TiVoed it. After watching it, I kind of wish I’d just completely forgotten about it.
Whiplash, simply put, is one of the most overrated movies I think I’ve ever seen.
Since it’s been a while, there’s no need to avoid spoilers. The movie’s about a kid at a music conservatory, a drummer, who gets plucked from lower division drudgery by a famously abusive, prickly director to be part of his competition band. Lots of yelling and music occurs and our hero is broken down by his would be mentor. The ending is nicely ambiguous, as he either triumphs over this asshole or simply becomes just like him. It’s the best part of the film by far.
That’s because most of the other things that make up a movie – mainly the characters and the story itself – are lacking. Take the main character, who is so dull I can’t even remember his name. He has the charisma of a wet sponge, yet somehow manages a date with Supergirl (he dumps her later in the most on the nose “it’s not you, it’s me” speech ever put to film). His only goal appears to be getting famous, which he’s decided to do in 21st Century American by . . . becoming a jazz drummer. Sure, kid, whatever.
More formidable is his mentor, Fletcher, for which J.K. Simmons won an Oscar. Simmons gets to yell a lot, complete with vulgarities and insults that range from homophobic to anti-Semitic. There are no layers to this guy, no hint as to how he’s come to be the way he is. There’s a hint of a soul, when he finds out that a former student has hung himself, but it’s gone pretty quickly. Oh, and he’s nice to a little girl, but, you know, even Hitler liked dogs. Simmons’s performance at last has life to it.
What’s altogether not clear is why either character has anything to do with music. As one reviewer concluded:
What Whiplash ultimately champions isn’t really musicianship but empty, grandstanding virtuosity. Under Fletcher’s tutelage, Andrew never learns anything about nuance or dynamics; as designated by Chazelle, the measures of his artistic accomplishment are strictly speed and ferocity. The movie ends with Andrew executing one of those horrible, endless jerk-off solos that give jazz a bad name, though it’s presented as the ultimate victory.
Wet sponge only wants to be famous. When challenged about his career choice there’s no mention of love of music or trying to connect with the mysteries of the universe. He has no music background at home, so it’s not as if he’s trying to fulfill someone else’s dream. Just why would he put up with all the shit Fletcher sends his way?
Likewise, it’s never clear why Fletcher went into teaching music rather than, say, being a football coach. Make no mistake, his tactics aren’t about making better musicians or better people, they’re about one thing – winning competitions. I know from my own musical life that winning such things often means cranking up flashy technique at the expense of, you know, the music and that’s certainly true for Fletcher. Again, he’s not into the music itself, only the end goal of winning. More than that, the anecdote that underlies his philosophy of life/teaching isn’t true.
Which is what makes the film’s pivotal point so fucking stupid. The band is set to play at a competition a couple of hours into the hinterlands outside New York City. Fletcher, perfectionist that he is about these shows, doesn’t bother to charter a bus to take the band there. No, it’s every man (and it’s all, or at least mostly, men) for himself, with a helpful hint to leave earlier to beat the traffic. Naturally, wet sponge can’t manage that and manages to walk away to a car wreck to take his place, bleeding on stage. Rather than have the stand in take his place (the band hauls around multiple drummers, but every other spot is just a single – for whatever reason), Fletcher lets him play, which of course he can’t. It’s horribly dumb.
As, really, the whole movie is. Some of the cinematography is nice (sweeps across the horn section, nice lighting, etc.), but it’s service of absolutely nothing. The writer/director, Damien Chazelle, clearly has a thing for jazz (he went on to make La La Land), but he doesn’t seem to enjoy it very much (as this article argues, the movie gets its jazz mythology wrong). As such, Whiplash isn’t much more than a lovingly shot portrait of an abusive relationship where neither party has any real motivation. If there’s anything more pointless than a drum solo, maybe that’s it.