Director: Damien Chazelle
Actors: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons
Genre: Music Drama Year: 2014
What types of trait a person must possess in order to evolve into one of the greatest, immortal-in-the-minds-of-posterity artists? Who can yearn for it and take the less traveled road to the apogee in the realm of art? This prodigy-in-the-making has been the topic for quite a few movies in the past. (On top of my head, I can think of “Black Swan” and “Pollack.”) A person can be a prodigy of many different sorts. In this movie, it’s become a greatest jazz drummer.
As obvious as it is, the drum as a musical instrument stands out against other instruments. First, it involves much more physical movement, hence more conspicuous and dynamic. Second, drumming is often thought to be a background support for the harmony of other instruments. Third, you can actually get hurt playing drums, as will be obvious in the movie. All these in mind, the movie about a drum prodigy has many potentials for the medium, and they are well employed in this movie.
Whiplash has won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival this year. This reviewer watched the movie during the pre-screening session here at UCLA, with Q&A session followed after with the main actors.
The movie opens as the camera closes on Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) practicing jazz drumming in a tiny room. With the crude beats and pounds of the drums, the scene is more claustrophobic than the view suggests, and what’s worse, there stands Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the conductor of the best jazz team at the school, criticizing every aspect of the new student’s drumming. Andrew has just enrolled in the music school (the best in U.S.), and dreams of becoming a main drummer in Fletcher’s jazz team. The conductor, Fletcher, is a devil-fearing character, not sparing violence when disciplining his students.
There are no two-words in an English Language more harmful than ‘good-job.’
As it is the best school, and Fletcher’s band being the top, there is fierce competition among musicians to become the main player in the team. Andrew, shy and taciturn he may be, would give anything to take the position. It’s the story of his upward climb, then a sudden downfall, and the redemption.
Some of previous movies, such as “Black Swan” may be more extreme in self-sacrifice and psychological price for becoming the greatest. Sure, Andrew suffers much in the movie too, but it is the relationship between a prodigy and a teacher that ought to gain more attention in this movie. Terrence Fletcher is relentless, and Andrew’s former obsequious attitude changes to resentment, then to hatred, and to revenge. All those progress of his emotion toward the teacher is depicted with his drumming, and in the end, he might not have achieve the status of the greatest, but the feeling of satisfaction that he has attained what he wanted is nonetheless dramatic.
Allegorical Viewing: What it means to become great at something?
During the movie, Fletcher tells Andrew that “there are no two-words in English language more harmful than ‘Good Job.'” Hence, the Fletcher’s way of discipline was to push his students with whatever means until they themselves push beyond the limit.
Throughout the movie, we see that Andrew has dreamt of becoming the greatest since he was young. He indulges himself in the art. In his room, on the bus ride, deep into the night, he listens to nothing but drum cds, scrutinizes every measure and every marks on the drum sheets, and practices until his hands bleeds and blisters. He even shuns his girlfriend because he thinks their time together is mere impediment to his drumming progress. His sanity and his bodily well-being are peripheral concerns when it comes to the drumming.
We viewers wish that he achieves what he desires, yet we are conflicted and doubtful in our admiration. Would he really be happy when he achieves what he desires? During the family dinner, his uncle mentions that Andrew’s idol, (Buddy Rich) was, yes, the greatest drummer but he was lonely, depressed, drug-addicted and died at the age of 35. Andrew, to his father’s disappointment, lauds such fame and life. He thinks it is better to be remembered than to live happily for a long, forgettable life. In this fierce, competitive society, we often have to make many choices as we play zero-sum games. In order to attain something, we need to sacrifice something that might be equally important.
Music Lovers, Dreamers, Jazz-maniacs, and person who likes to imagine the limits of human wills.