Movies I missed in 2014: Whiplash

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Whiplash raises some interesting questions about why we go to the movies and what we expect from them. From even the most cursory glance at any writing by anyone who knows their jazz, it becomes obvious the film has no interest in portraying what it takes to become a great jazz musician – something neither Andfew Neiman nor Terrance Fletcher and their absense of collaborative improv would have the chops for. For all the congratulations about Miles Teller’s performance, he didn’t even bother researching his role enough to know how to set up a drum kit as a fan of Buddy Rich. J.K.Simmons, a music perfectionist who ludicrously manages to find two hours for the gym every day, gives a performance as a teacher that wouldn’t have gotten him far in the real world of Jazz – after all these years, and all this work, he hasn’t even learned to curb his ego. Even down to the erroneous recall of the Jo Jones cymbal throwing incident that supposedly transformed Charlie Parker, and the adoration of Buddy Rich, who is, ironically, more of a TV celebrity than a jazz great, the truth of Whiplash is that fools as distanced from the real world of great jazz musicianship as Damian Chazelle’s characters are probably only good enough for mid day television. Even the idea that someone like Charlie Parker would be forced into mediocrity by someone telling him “good job” shows how little Chazelle understands about what truly makes a great jazz musician.

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However, the real question we have to ask ourselves, is does that matter? Whiplash isn’t about jazz, and it really never tries to be. It’s a motivational piece, more likely to inspire bankers and small business owners into a week of ruthless dedication than it is likely to inspire an artist to creative heights. It is about a pair of fictional musicians (no great reputations were harmed in the making of this film) and it is only incidentally about music and even less connected to jazz.

Instead, it is a beautifully crafted, nicely performed film about the peculiar phenomenon of excellence presented to an audience bereft of the ability to focus. That is the film in a nutshell, a dedicated homage to focus in a world that feels the lack of it like a millstone around each net surfing neck. Where films like Amadeus once heralded genius as a perverse talent that will happily lodge itself in the most useless fop, the current fashion around ability resides more with an American ideal of work, work, work, practice makes perfect, and ‘pushing beyond one’s limitations’. It’s an idea that is used to sell everything from luxury vehicles to sports clothing, and it is the reason we can’t get rid of our banking culture, no matter how blatantly talentless and stupid those high in its echelons prove to be upon close examination. We can’t help admiring what we imagine to be a ruthless, determined focus, and we love to see it rewarded. All this despite advances in neuroscience that reveal the brain learns more from diffuse learning than focused learning, and that focused learning the way Chazelle presents it to us, simply wouldn’t have attained the results we imagine. Without the diffuse structures of relaxed, creative free fall – akin to precisely what the jazz greats were doing when they got together to ‘jam’ – Andrew and Terrance would have shot themselves in the head for their inability to remember anything from the day before.

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But we don’t want to know the details of jazz, we want to belive the only reason we aren’t the worlds greatest jazz drummer is because we can’t commit. And Whiplash doses up that premise with all the energy and dedication to the wrong details that a film with such a shallow primary core can muster. If Miles Teller didn’t bother to work out how to set up a drum kit, he did study the most important aspects of portraying a great musician – looking like one to people who know nothing about music. He slices his hand open in his passion to talk you into it (and Chazelle films it and films it and films it) that’s his real blood in those scenes. Where a performance such as Holly Hunters Ada in The Piano seeks to understand the profound relationship between a musician and their music, Teller forgoes all that and seeks only to convince an audience dying to be convinced of his authenticity. However, the level of his competence is such that Damien Chazelle is free to use his camera for some wonderfully frenzied shots culminating in a final scene that is by far the best of the film. Teller’s performance, which is probably his best, is woefully underplayed, as the profound psychological transformation he supposedly experiences is only revealed in sweat – but that’s consistent with the films premise, and another close-up favourite of Chazelle.

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J.K. Simmons is better than Teller but still, its a performance that is all neck veins and little substance. Simmons lack of vulnerability is his performance weakness, as even the hint of it in the eye would have elevated the show above caricature into the realm of the sublime. As I said above, his physique looks more like a sixty year old actor has been offered an oscar-bait role, and worked hard to get into shape because he imagines he’s in with a chance with the twenty-something-girlies, than a dedicated musician leading a supposedly spartan lifestyle. The entire role has been written with one scene in mind, ironically when Simmons is not present, when Andrew defends his macho-musicianship-awesome-skills to a couple of football jock friends around a terribly contrived dinner table conversation. Simmon’s plays the anti-coach, the shout out to all high level (male) athletes that the jazz musician’s coach is tougher than theirs. And that’s really what Whiplash comes down to. It’s an outdated machismo battle for mind territory that doesn’t exist and never did between musicians and sportsmen. Focus!

However, placed on a billboard against the mediocrity on offer this awards season, as far as thrillers go, Whiplash does hold attention, and does tap into that motivating passion we have for a lifestyle that presents as the antitheses of the one we’re all living now. Seen as little more than a motivational video, it becomes a great film that drives you hard to achieve for at least a couple of days, and perhaps that is what we want from our $25.00 spent at the movies?

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