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Jerome Robbins was one of the greatest choreographers and director in theater. But he was almost universally hated and it’s hard to find anyone who had a nice thing to say about him. There is one story, probably apocryphal, which sums up this feeling about the grand master: during West Side Story, he was slowly backing up toward the apron; everyone was so angry at him, they didn’t try to stop him and just watched him go off the edge of the stage.
On the other hand, Bob Fosse, at least equally as brilliant (possibly more), though a tough taskmaster, was universally loved. Even his ex-wives and lovers tended not to wax rapturously about the negative aspects of his personality.
Yet both, through different approaches, achieved wondrous things with their actors and dancers.
I thought of this as I was watching the new film Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, a story about Fletcher, a tyrannical conductor and teacher of jazz at what the story contends is the greatest music school in the U.S. (Julliard is chopped liver, I suppose) and his new victim, I mean, pupil/discovery, Andrew, someone Fletcher thinks, through his Stalinesque methods, can be turned into a drummer on the level of Charlie Parker on the saxophone (who is the basis of a story that Fletcher tells to support his theory of teaching).
Whiplash is a movie that makes you think, but it wasn’t a film that made me feel. At the huge climactic moment, I didn’t experience a rush of sadness, or a resonating sense of tragedy, as Andrew gains the world, but loses his soul in a magnificent finale of a drum solo.
Instead, after leaving the theater, I and a friend debated the basic idea: is a teacher like Fletcher and his despotic tutorial methods what is needed for someone to achieve greatness?
On the one hand, the movie is dramatically compelling and certainly makes you wonder whether its basic contention might be correct.
In the more brighter light of day, however, as cooler minds prevail, well, it’s all bollocks.
Even the central anecdote that is the foundation for Fletcher’s dictatorial methods is not quite accurate. He constantly talks about the drummer Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at the late, great Parker’s head when he couldn’t get the beat right. Others claim Jones actually threw the cymbal on the floor and it was to stop Parker, to “gong” him off, and was more due to Parker not changing key, not an inability to keep to the right rhythm.
Still, Fletcher contends that this caused Parker to practice obsessively and that this is what created his genius—but in real life, genius doesn’t just come from doing something over and over again. One can toot the horn as often as Parker did, even more, yet never achieve what Parker did if one doesn’t have the other qualities needed for greatness.
Practice may make you perfect, but perfection is not what makes greatness and it won’t raise you above the hoi polloi. I would even venture to posit that the vast majority of geniuses may have been driven, and may have had someone driving them, but that very few of them had a cymbal thrown at their head (metaphorically or otherwise).
In many ways, the whole movie exists in a kind of fantasy land that suits the purpose of Chazelle’s philosophy. Fletcher is homophobic, misogynistic, anti-Semitic and racist (but only in a politically correct way—he insults the ethnic heritage of someone who is of Irish background, but seems to know somehow that the box office of the movie will fall off irreparably if he goes after someone for being black).
He also physically assaults his students.
In this day and age, it’s very difficult to believe that he would still have his job. Fletcher’s actions would have left a trail of tears and anger longer than the Nile, but he seems to live in the same Cloud Cuckooland that TV’s House lives in—still managing to have a job at a hospital when it real life he would have caused so many lawsuits, he would have been dismissed ages before.
Even at the climactic scene, after constantly telling, actually yelling at, his students that if they sabotage his band he will “fuck [them] like a pig”, Fletcher decides to ham screw himself. In order to get revenge against Andrew, he sets Andrew up for failure at a concert. But when Andrew at first does screw up, Fletcher doesn’t have a backup plan, a drummer waiting in the wings—once Miles is done, so is Fletcher. It almost feels as if Fletcher has read the screenplay ahead of time.
Yet it has to be said that there is something incredibly compelling about the movie. One can’t stop watching it. I would suggest it is virtually impossible not to become invested in everything that is happening on screen.
There are three reasons, I think, for this. The first are the exciting and riveting drum solos, blood flowing from the fingers of the characters and flooding the screen like a Hong Kong action flick (yeah, I know, I’m exaggerating, but still, I promise you, there will be blood—apparently, some of the plasma in the film was actually Miles Teller’s, the actor who plays Andrew; he’s been a drummer since he was a teenager, but even so, the style of drumming and the amount of time he spent practicing resulted in the SFX guys not having to use as much of the fake stuff as was original thought).
The second reason is due to J.K. Simmons fierce performance. He’s always shown a great character actor’s range, from a police department psychiatrist in Law & Order, to a psychotic neo-Nazi in Oz, to a loving but gruff father in Juno, to the gruff and not particularly loving editor J. Jonah Jameson in Spiderman.
We now have what may be the performance of his career in the, well, I can’t quite say role of his career; as powerful as Simmons is as Fletcher, the role itself is a rather familiar one (it’s The Paper Chase’s Professor Kingsfield experiencing roid rage) and I’m not sure that Chazelle has really brought anything that new to it. But what Simmons brings to it is stunning.
And this time round, Simmons is not just the lead (or as much the lead as Teller is), he owns the movie, brutally bulldozing through everyone and everything in his path, even the less believable aspects of the story. No matter what one might think of what the movie is saying, Simmons will be remembered long after the arguments are over.
Which leaves reason number three. What also makes the movie so watchable is that it doesn’t quite go the way one thinks. At first, it seems a bit formulaic, that it’s going to be a movie about someone being bullied, a story that is structurally repetitive with a plot that doesn’t go anywhere new.
Until the band goes out of town for a competition. The band’s drummer puts Andrew in charge of his score. Andrew accidentally loses it. The drummer can’t go on without the music. And at that point, as Fletcher is about to unbutton his pants and have carnal knowledge of said swine, Andrew volunteers that he can do it, he can go on without the music. And with that, Andrew takes the original drummer’s place.
But even that’s not it. That’s not what makes the story different.
At this point, Andrew…smirks. He didn’t purposely lose the music, but when it happens, he has no moral issue with exploiting his fellow bandmate’s misfortune. And he smirks.
In other words, Andrew is not the victim he seems at first. He is a character that fully buys into the warped view of life that Fletcher has and even embraces it. He wants to succeed and seems to agree that Fletcher’s way is the only way and he is willing to do what it takes, no matter who he hurts along the way, to achieve it.
And with that, the movie becomes All About Eve meets Full Metal Jacket.
And the more the movie goes along; the more obsessive Andrew becomes; the more the blood drips from his fingers onto the drums; the less and less one feels pity for him. He made his bed, now he has to sleep in it.
Even when he dumps his girlfriend you don’t feel sad about it; you think, thank god, she just dodged a bullet.
About the only time I did feel for Andrew is at a Christmas dinner where he is constantly put down for his goals in life by his aunt and uncle, while his cousins, whose achievements are more trivial, are praised. In his defense, he handles himself well and has enough wit and intelligence to beat off the attacks.
But what is heartbreaking is how his father (Paul Reiser, nee Mad About You Reiser) never comes to his defense, but just watches his own progeny being verbally bullied (in a way that almost equals Fletcher’s), not only never coming to Andrew’s aid, but joining with the others. And then the father has the temerity not to understand why his son might feel hurt.
Teller is becoming the juvenile de jour after his performance in The Spectacular Now (my, they grow up so fast, don’t they). He has a nice presence and a constantly sad face and soulful eyes that work in his favor. It may be true that he doesn’t quite have the vibrancy or screen presence of Simmons, but the two have great charisma as they work their way through their love/hate relationship.
And, God, can he smirk.
With Chris Mulkey as Uncle Frank, always a welcome addition to any supporting cast.
The whole movie was filmed in 19 days.