Whiplash (US, 2014)



The intention of this blog is to write about ‘films with something to say’; that’s a bit of nonsense as all films have ‘something to say’. I’m trying to suggest the blog’s about films that have ‘something interesting to say’. Many films are interesting though I tend only to blog about films I like. I’m making an exception of Whiplash because it has been critically acclaimed whilst I detested it. If you’re planning to see the film don’t read on as there will be spoilers. In brief: the film celebrates JK Simmons’ character despite the fact he is a homophobic, racist, sexist, violent bully.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle is trying to pull of that difficult trick of getting us to admire someone who’s abominable. Daniel Day Lewis managed to get me to sympathise with his monstrous Bill ‘The Butcher’ in Gangs of New York (US-Italy, 2002) and I understood the psychological torment suffered by Michael Fassbinder’s Edwin Epps, a racist in love with a black woman, in 12 Years a Slave; however JK Simmons’ martinet music teacher, Fletcher, is irredeemable. That’s not, I think, to do with his performance but because the premise of the film, that such bullying can be necessary to achieve greatness, is wrong. Greatness in musical performance, and other spheres, is achieved through talent and utmost dedication to practice. Whiplash does show that but the closing scene’s exchanged smile between the protagonists suggests that every vile thing Fletcher did was to the good is, for me, as vile as his character.

Recently sexual abuse of pupils at an elite music school in Manchester has come to light (that’s one sin Fletcher is not guilty of) and high-pressured relationship between tutor and pupil can obviously be psychologically damaging. For Whiplash to acknowledge this, Fletcher has to resign after a bullied pupil (who nevertheless became successful) committed suicide, and then to say but really what Fletcher did to Miles Teller’s Andrew, a drummer, was right is reprehensible. I could go on about the absence of women, Andrew’s girlfriend only exists to be dispensed with and his mother is dead, but I won’t.

The critics and audiences love the film (imdb is at 8.7) so I’m out of step on this one. Maybe because I am a teacher Fletcher’s  dreadful behaviour is personal. I don’t know but I do know I hated this film.

PS the music is terrific.

5 Responses

  1. I respect your dislike of the film, Nick (I’m a teacher too and despised Fletcher), but I don’t agree that the film “celebrates” the homophobic, racist, sexist, violent, bullying of JK Simmons’ character. Nor did I take the message of the film to be that, really, what Fletcher did to Miles Teller’s Andrew, was right.

    First of all, I thought the structure of the film was finely balanced; I felt shock, anger and sympathy for Andrew from the beginning. But this began to change after he dumped his girlfriend with such an arrogant lack of awareness that I was unsure whether to think this was naivety or a character flaw. Nevertheless I thought he might be redeemed and the film kept me guessing about where it was going right up to the end (and after). At any point in the last 30 minutes it could have opted for a cliched ending, which would have been nice and non-problematic (by simplistically condemning the vile Fletcher), but this would have been something we have seen many times before.

    Instead the film went for an ending that I took as ambiguous and challenging – the closing scene’s exchanged smile between the protagonists might mean that Andrew had done what Fletcher wanted (that Fletcher had won). But my partner, for example, took them to mean that Andrew had won (by taking control of the concert and refusing to be cowed by Fletcher’s bullying).

    They might equally denote a sly derision on Andrew’s part and that he will get further revenge later (after the film is over). On the other hand it might (as you suggest) mean that Andrew is now complicit – though I am not convinced that this interpretation is as reprehensible (for a film, not an individual) as you suggest.

    I came away wondering which of these interpretations was most interesting. If we take your scenario – that Andrew finally comes round to Fletcher’s way of thinking and will end up being a teacher like him – then I felt betrayed – rather in the way I was betrayed by Travis Bickle at the end of Taxi Driver – that ‘my’ protagonist who I had been rooting for, had tricked me. And as in Scorsese’s film, this is not to say it was a bad film with a bad message: it was not meant to affirm my warm fuzzy view of the world but to shake me up.

    Yes, I got the absence of women but wasn’t that also making a point about the lack in Andrew’s life – and in Fletcher’s – which seemed to be part of their messianic attitude to art and music and talent (which I hasten to say I have no belief in). But the challenge I felt at the end was akin to the sense of disappointment and ‘betrayal’ I contemplated on learning that they had found poetry,music and great literature in the commandant’s office in Auschwitz and Belsen.

  2. I couldn’t argue with any of the readings you offer, they are all supported by the film. This polysemy might be why the film has hit a positive note with so many. Andrew is also unpleasant when he mocks his cousins (?), as well as when dumping his girlfriend; at least she wasn’t at the concert to see his triumph! The film would have been interesting, for me, if Andrew had given up drumming; the cost of dedicating himself to excellence is often too great, I think, in both music and sports. However, the film obviously had to climax with a triumphant moment: I still think it’s Fletcher’s unfortunately.(Thanks for the long comment).

    • I think the triumph belongs to music. We all benefit from the terrific output of creativity. The question the film makes us contemplate is: at what cost?

  3. […] long time'; we don’t know what his offence is but it will be violent. Like previous posting, Whiplash, Starred Up seeks to make deeply unsympathetic characters understandable. Jonathan Asser’s […]

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