Now that the Oscars are come and gone, it is appropriate to catch up on several of the films that did not (or have not yet) found their way to the Upper Valley, but are available on one or more of the video streaming services. A good example is ‘Whiplash’ which won the genial J.K. Simmons a golden boy for his frighteningly aggressive portrayal of a teacher in a Julliard-style music conservatory.
‘Whiplash’ is, frankly, a two-person character study of the classic face-off between gifted, but cocky student (played here by newcomer Miles Teller) and demanding, but well-intentioned teacher (Simmons). As a fully realized film, ‘Whiplash’ leaves much to be desired. There are several completely undeveloped and tangential meanderings off of the primary plot line, which are just distractions. The first is an attempt by student Andrew to develop a relationship with a young woman he sees behind the snack counter of the movie theater that provides his primary – nay, his ONLY – respite from practicing and playing the drums. It is a meager attempt at building a bit of a love story into the film – and it falls flat. The second is Andrew’s relationship with his divorced father, an English teacher who tries to support and understand his son’s obsession with jazz drumming, but is never fleshed out as a real character in his own right. Again, this is just a distraction.
The real main event is found in the confrontation between Simmon’s dictatorial teacher Fletcher and Teller’s striving Andrew. Perhaps dictator is not exactly the right word. Sadist might be a better descriptor. Fletcher is verbally, emotionally and physically abusive to his students – and particularly to Andrew, in whom he seems to see a spark of greatness that needs to be either pushed to the extreme of success; or to the point of destruction. For those of us who have seen Simmons as the affable, kind-hearted father in films like ‘Juno’ or as the affable, kind-hearted insurance ‘professor’ in the American Family Insurance commercials, his performance in ‘Whiplash’ is the cinematic equivalent of the face-slap that he delivers more than once to Andrew, demanding ever better, faster and more precise musicianship. Fletcher’s intensity, passion and brutality is at first frightening, then provocative and ultimately pitiable, as he is hoisted upon his own petard and dismissed from the school after Andrew is suborned into ratting him out.
But this is an alternative version of the dominant/submissive dynamic that the ‘Fifty Shades’ franchise has popularized. Andrew submits to Fletcher’s abuse because he believes that it is making him a better player: he begins to exist only to please his abuser -- until he breaks. Actually, until BOTH characters break, each from the hubris of their own role in this abusive relationship. Fletcher is dismissed from the conservatory and Andrew gives up the drums. They only come together again when Andrew discovers Fletcher playing gigs in seedy jazz clubs. This all sets up the role reversal in the third act of the film.
Here we find Fletcher attempting to rebuild his reputation by taking on the leadership of a jazz festival in which he invites Andrew to play, ostensibly offering an olive branch for his past behavior. Andrew accepts, only to find that he has been set up for further humiliation by Fletcher for his role in engineering the dismissal. But here the tables turn, and the submissive becomes dominant, rising from the ashes to teach the teacher. It is the feel good ending that the film doesn’t really deserve.
Truly, in its script, the film really is quite trite – perhaps an after-school special at best. What raises ‘Whiplash’ to the level of an Oscar winner are the extraordinary performances of Simmons and Teller. In the tradition of many classic co-dependent relationships in film, the two develop a unique, troubling but ultimately fascinating relationship that is impossible to ignore. Teller and Simmons each bring just the right balance of fanaticism and pity to their parts; and the two play off of each other in a perfect death’s dance that only one can win. I won’t give away the ending by disclosing the winner.
‘Whiplash’ is definitely worthy of your time and your money. And if you are a jazz aficionado, you will be treated to a couple of great versions of jazz classics along the way.