Thrill to the Magic, by David Bax
Having, in a past life, toiled as a production assistant on a handful of studio movies, I’ve come to abhor the idea, so prevalent in the industry we refer to as Hollywood, that one must “pay your dues,” starting at the very bottom of both the pay scale and the range of possible human respect. PAs work long hours (on a rigged payment system that’s probably not entirely legal) for people who barely make eye contact with them, mostly doing tasks that aren’t integral to filmmaking and sometimes aren’t even related to the film on which they’re ostensibly working; I once spent an entire workday packing up the producer’s wine collection and having it shipped to her vacation home.
This is all to say that, when a film like Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash comes along and asks if emotional and physical abuse is worthwhile if it produces great art, I’m already predisposed toward a certain answer. To Chazelle’s credit, however, he asks the question seriously and seriously ponders its myriad outcomes. In the end, though, his film never uses its fangs enough for the question to leave a mark.
Miles Teller plays Andrew, a literal student of jazz. He’s in his first year at a prestigious music school and jazz is his concentration . Or perhaps the whole institution is specifically a jazz school; that much is never made clear. His drumming catches the ear of a revered teacher named Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, returning to the ferociously terrifying kind of character that made his name on Oz) who invites or, more accurately, orders Andrew to join the school’s decorated studio band. Almost immediately, Andrew’s being hit with insults, degradations and chairs. And he becomes possessed by a drive that may be either commendable or corrosively neurotic.
At first, Fletcher doesn’t come across as threateningly as he’s meant to. This is an instance in which the film’s polish and cinematic verve work against it. On the one hand, Whiplash’s expert construction is worthy of applause and, at the very least, some awards love for the editor. This thing positively moves. But that recognizably solid form makes the audience feel a little too safe. When Fletcher glances over some sheet music and sniffs, “Cute,” he seems like more of a Movie Prick than a real prick, as if there might still be a heart of gold buried in there.
Once Andrew starts attending the studio band’s practices, things settle into a groove of visceral anxiety and psychological violence. Also, there’s some actual violence. Remember the chairs? Fletcher’s abuse of Andrew and others is stultifying, irresponsible and very often homophobic and racist. When he lays into an overweight trombone player, it begins to feel like Full Metal Spit-Valve.
Chazelle, cinematographer Sharone Meir and editor Tom Cross flesh out the world with expertly placed and beautifully composed inserts. Brief shots of a cymbal knocked askew or of blood seeping out from under a hastily applied bandage after drumsticks have first created blisters and then ruptured them; these make both the talent and the grit of drumming real even to those of us who can’t tell a snare from a tom.
Of course, Whiplash isn’t just scenes of drumming and verbal abuse. It also has a plot and, at the close of the second act, that plot turns on Andrew making a decision that’s difficult to buy from the character. That could be a problem with the screenplay but it’s more evidently a problem with Teller’s performance. Perhaps he lacks the confidence to let Andrew be as unlikable as he ought to be. Even in the scenes in which Andrew’s being a jerk, Teller seems to be asking us to forgive him for it. It’s the primary thing that keeps this very good movie from being great. Fletcher operates under the belief that the harder the challenge, the better the result. Teller holds Whiplash back from being truly challenging.