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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Whiplash movie review: music as a savage beast

Whiplash green light

If you didn’t think music could involve actual blood, sweat, and tears, this breathtakingly visceral coming-of-artistic-age drama will set you straight.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

What price creative success? What price personal achievement? How far is too far to push yourself — or to push others — on the road to a much desired greatness? These are the intriguing questions at the heart of writer-director Damien Chazelle’s second feature film, and there are no easy answers… and the hard answer isn’t a particularly pleasant one, though it is refreshingly honest. Andrew (Miles Teller: Two Night Stand) is a drum student at “the best music school in the country” — it’s New York’s Juilliard, disguised with a fake name here — taken under the wing of a drill sergeant of a jazz teacher, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons: Men, Women & Children), whom the whole school is terrified of. This seems like a less than positive environment for fostering creativity… but isn’t discipline also a necessary factor in honing any talent? Fletcher’s methods are, at a minimum, abusive, and as Chazelle thrilling depicts the interplay between Andrew and Fletcher, often downright villainous. (There are moments when you will hiss out loud at Fletcher’s wickedness; Simmons clear glee at playing such an atypical bad guy is delicious.) I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie about music — or about any creative endeavor — that is thisvisceral: if you didn’t think music could involve actual blood, sweat, and tears, Chazelle corrects that misapprehension in ways that will have you catching your breath and then cheering. But even as we are getting entirely caught up in a sort of physical and spiritual dedication we rarely see onscreen (unless it’s about football), we’re also challenged to reexamine our attitudes, both personal and cultural, toward that dedication. Is what we’re witnessing unduly extreme, or utterly necessary?

viewed during the 58th BFI London Film Festival


See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Whiplash for its representation of girls and women.


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Whiplash (2014)
US/Can release: Oct 10 2014
UK/Ire release: Jan 16 2015

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated MSFTA (contains men suffering for their art)
MPAA: rated R for strong language including some sexual references
BBFC: rated 15 (very strong language, strong sex references

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • Constable

    I had no idea that J.K. Simmons was in this, he’s been busy lately so I didn’t expect to see him in a film this soon. The premise sounds interesting, I had a few intense violin teachers but obviously nothing close to what you described. I definitely have to see this now.

  • Kathy_A

    I think I’ll have to see this one. I had a band director in junior high who was the very definition of “martinet”, although he wasn’t evil. Once, the entire band was being a bit squirrely (as pre-teens tend to be at times), and he had just had it. Tossed his baton in the air, stepped off his podium, walked to the chair along the wall and spun it around to sit in it, whereupon he just glared at us all and didn’t speak for 5 minutes straight. We quieted right down and were equally silent. Finally, he stood up, said, “Well, are we ready to work now?” and we all put our heads down and started playing. He was really strict, but we had the best junior-high band in the entire state of Illinois for years in a row.

    He was also my private lesson teacher in 7th and 8th grade, and he reduced me to tears on multiple occasions (I wasn’t really all that into excelling in playing my clarinet–I was happy with just being mediocre at it, and he could always tell when I hadn’t practiced).

  • He was really strict, but we had the best junior-high band in the entire state of Illinois for years in a row.

    That’s basically this movie in a nutshell. It takes extreme measures to be really great.

  • Bluejay

    You can really extend the “what price greatness?” question to a lot of stuff. It sounds like what parents in NY talk about when evaluating whether High School X may churn out Harvard material but may be too much of a pressure cooker. Then there’s Louis CK’s take on it:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVTXFsHYLKA

  • Danielm80

    Depending on your point of view, Whiplash is either the polar opposite of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” or exactly the same story.

  • You can really extend the “what price greatness?” question to a lot of stuff.

    That’s why *Whiplash* isn’t really about music but is pretty universal.

    Louis CK’s take

    Yeah, no. There’s nothing in this movie that even remotely connects to slavery.

  • No, it’s not. No one in *Whiplash* is being forced to do anything. Everyone has free will and *wants* to be doing what they’re doing. There’s an enormous difference between pushing yourself and pushing others who *want to be pushed* because they’re driven to greatness, and harming innocent others for your own benefit.

  • Bluejay

    No one in *Whiplash* is being forced to do anything. Everyone has free will and *wants* to be doing what they’re doing.

    I guess I’m having trouble reconciling this with your description of Fletcher’s methods as “at a minimum, abusive” and “often downright villainous.” But maybe I’ll just have to go and see the film. :-)

  • Danielm80

    You should see the film regardless. I think it’s one of the best movies of the last several years. And it will give you something to argue about with me and MaryAnn.

  • I can’t say too much about Fletcher’s (or Andrew’s) behavior without spoiling. But suffice to say that Andrew can want to drive himself to greatness and still (possibly — this is open to interpretation) be subject to mistreatment. Where that boundary is is everything this movie is about.

    Think of a military movie, or a football movie. We’ve seen this dynamic many times before. A soldier can want to join the army, a player can want to win the Super Bowl, but how far is too far for their sergeant or coach to push them toward that goal? Or is there no such thing as too far when it comes to achieving a goal you greatly desire?

  • But isn’t there something that connects Whiplash to Louis’ idea that the universal cost of greatness is always some degree of human suffering?

  • No. There’s an enormous difference between making yourself suffer and making other people suffer.

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