Whiplash is not a complicated film. That is not to say it is not brilliant. It is brilliant. Written and directed by the biggest young talent in film-making today, 29 year old Damian Chazelle, everything about Whiplash says genius. But, like men, to whom the film is a profound ode, Whiplash is uncomplicated and unpretentious. It has a clear storyline, compelling characters, a climb, a nadir, a resolution. It follows the classic three-act screenplay structure immortalized by Syd Field in his how-to book Screenplay. It employs no complicated structures, flashbacks, or other rhetorical devices. Rather, it is a classic, even predictable, story, told superbly.
I didn’t want to see it. I hate “art films” and I hate Jazz. My husband saying ‘let’s go see this film about a jazz drummer’ is not a winning lead-in. But it really isn’t about Jazz drumming. It’s about drive, ambition, fire, rivalry, and masculine approval. It’s the same essential story as ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’ with Richard Gere, yet without the side characters, and imagine if Sergeant Foley was about a thousand times the badass and you would lay down your very life to win his approval.
Miles Teller is excellent as the lead, and up for an Oscar. His character is always there, driven, ambitious, isolated. He has a gift that is incomprehensible to those around him, and the movie plays nicely with these conventions; his character’s ordinary side struggling for release by getting up the courage to ask out a girl, his bemusement when, so unlike himself, that girl is not laser-focused on what she wants to do with her life. Teller has a loving father who, because he does not understand Jazz drumming, is unable to understand his son’s bitterly hard-won achievements. The genius is more or less alone, as talent often is. Teller carries off all these nuances extremely well; the resentment, the shame, the rivalries, the determination, the risks great people take when they put all their eggs in one basket.
On one level, discussed by most critics, the film is a meditation on achievement and mediocrity and how much of a price is worth paying to get it. But on another, one mostly missed, the film is in fact about men. Masculine men. Dominant men. Type A males and how men will do anything – literally anything – to obtain the good opinion of a man whose good opinion is worth having; of a man who will not compromise, will not accept anything less than perfection, and doesn’t give a fuck about you or your excuses or your feelings. The film is shocking because it breaches the same forbidden territory breached by Fifty Shades of Grey. I do not compare the artistic achievement of Whiplash to the schlock of Fifty Shades; rather I compare the essential premises. Fifty Shades broached the forbidden idea that women enjoy being sexually dominated by men they love, formerly a common assumption but today held to be misogynist, and that some men want to dominate women they love. Whiplash similarly posits that a talented, ambitious young man will do anything to win the praise of a superior male who gives it out sparingly if ever; and that the truly driven man will put achievement (conquering, winning, final victory) above all other things.
It is not Miles Teller, then, good though he is, who is the point of this movie. It is J.K. Simmons, a dead cert for Best Supporting Actor in a world where there is any justice. Simmons is a conductor. He is ruthless. He is brutal. He will shout and bawl and keep his players up until four in the morning if they get it wrong. He throws chairs at heads and he screams in the face of his players until they weep, then mocks them and throws them out. He is utterly uninterested in anything other than perfection and therefore, for him, the men under his command (they may as well be soldiers) would follow him into battle and die for him – literally.
So effective was Simmons in the part that I could not get him out of my own head after the film, and indeed, desperately wanted to collate the actor and the character (a reaction to a performance that makes you wish that the character existed). It was a joy, therefore, to find out that Simmons has a degree in music from the University of Montana, that when he conducts with icy precision, he is reprising a genuine skill (he conducted), and that in asking for the music in the film, when sent MP3s, he said ‘No – the music – give me the score.’ Simmons said that the character on the page felt like destiny to him, that he responded viscerally to it. In interviews I have read, he defends the actions of his character. Me too. Reviews that call Simmons’ conductor “the villain” are missing the point. “There are no two words in the English language so destructive as ‘good job’,” he says to the young hero.
SPOILERS FOR THE PLOT BELOW THIS LINE
And that is exactly what the reviewers miss. Simmons’ character isn’t a villain. He is a hero. He is not abusive. If you don’t like it, you can drop out, or be assigned another teacher; his students want to be in his band. Desperately. He is uncompromising and he is there to find genius and push it to its limits. On a very basic level, that means the character puts others in front of himself. He is selfless. He is not seeking his own genius; he is attempting to draw it from Teller’s character. As Jane Austen had Mr. Darcy say to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice “But your good opinion is rarely bestowed, and therefore, more worth the earning.” He and Teller both recognize something others cannot see; Teller has genius.
There is a scene in which Teller dumps his friendly, nice girlfriend because she will get in the way of his drumming and not understand his drive to be great. It’s a beautifully acted scene, but the genius here is the writer’s, because he poses an uncomfortable situation well. The girl is nice, the lead character is nice. The audience superficially is meant to think it is a mistake to dump the girl. But it is not a mistake. Teller’s character is absolutely right. He’s right not to lead a nice girl on, and he is right to dump her because he’s right that she can’t reach into his drive, and she will get in the way. Later, he tries to make up with her and she’s moved on. Some in my movie theatre were sighing in sympathy. I shook my head because, so what. It just doesn’t matter. She was wrong for him and at that point in his life, almost any girl was wrong for him.
The only dramatic false step for me came when Teller’s character is expelled from the Schaffer Conservatory for having assaulted Simmons’ character. Simmons would simply not have expelled Teller. He would have beaten him up, or imposed some other back-breaking punishment (as in An Officer and a Gentleman incidentally). Just as Teller’s raison d’être is his genius, Simmons’ is training and developing genius. For his character, Teller would have had to walk out voluntarily (thus showing himself unworthy, and not the genius Simmons was hunting).
But there are no other complaints, apart from a slowing of the momentum in the final act. The last scene is what you imagine it would be. It ends, and the film ends, at a particularly precise, dramatic instance, which mimics – no doubt intentionally – Simmons’ precision conducting. It is a triumph. It was shot on a shoestring of $3.3m dollars, with no acting rehearsals, in nineteen days. Start to finish, it is a triumph.
END OF SPOILERS – NO FURTHER SPOILERS BELOW
Whiplash is correctly described by Miles Teller as a psychological thriller. It has that pace, that plotting, that drama. It uses its setting as a foil to underline its dramatic point; e.g.; Teller is alone because his family and friends don’t understand his world. No more do we (unless we are classical musicians, I watched it at Lincoln Centre and there were some knowing laughs). This is emphasized in one intense scene where Simmons is saying “Not quite my tempo” in a tone that means “Cut his head off” and as the attempts to get it right proceed, we cannot hear the slightest difference between A and B. There’s humor, too, mostly in in-jokes. My husband, a rock manager, was almost beside himself listening to Simmons whip the musicians into shape. He manages Metallica, whose drummer Lars Ulrich has seen the film about six times. Lars probably really enjoyed the poster on Teller’s bedroom wall that says “If You Have No Talent, You’ll Wind Up in a Rock Band”.
But I found the film intense, inspirational and life-affirming because I am a huge tomboy, and the desire to be more than mediocre, to achieve at the highest level, to beat all comers, has been with me my whole life. I would follow Simmons’ character to the ends of the earth, and in real life, when I found a man as uncompromising and driven as that, I married him. The more ambitious we are, the more manly we are (both men and women), the more we will relate to Whiplash. See it. It will make you want to do, and be, better.