JK Simmons in Whiplash

There are a few obvious trends in the stories that dominated (and continue to dominate as the awards roll in) the 2014 cinematic season. Sociopaths had a big year (Gone Girl, Nightcrawler), as did women who walked really far (Tracks, Wild) and people who found healing through music (Rudderless, Begin Again, Frank). There was also a lot more science than I’ve seen at the movies in quite some time (The Theory of Everything, Big Hero 6, Interstellar if we’re calling whatever they’re doing in Interstellar “science”) and a ton of old fashioned bio-films (The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Unbroken). One of the most interesting recurring subjects, I think, is mentorship and, specifically, the dark side of it. Of the three coaching stories I’ve seen on film recently, only one (4 Minute Mile) portrayed an ultimately positive, if bumpy, relationship between the talented young man at its centre and the damaged older man meant to be pointing him in the right direction. Far more prominent are the two films at the cross-section of 2014’s mentorship trend (which also plays a part in all of those science movies) and its fascination with sociopaths- Foxcatcher and Whiplash, both frontrunners in the Oscar race for the actors portraying the dangerous coaches (Steve Carell in the lead actor category and JK Simmons in supporting).

Channing Tatum & Steve Carell in Foxcatcher
Channing Tatum & Steve Carell in Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher is the real attention-grabber and Carell is my pick for most likely to take home the Best Actor statue come Oscar time (though Eddie Redmayne would get my vote if I had one). I actually really disliked Foxcatcher, feeling like I could see through Carell’s scene-chewing performance and never quite engaging with Channing Tatum as the monosyllabic wrestler he becomes obsessed with (Tatum is a comedy man; why doesn’t he embrace that more fully?). The most interesting character is Mark Ruffalo’s David, who probably should be the lead, but even he suffers a bit from his actor’s inability to mask his own iconic voice. Foxcatcher feels outlandish with its fairly simplistic portrayal of obsession and villainy reaching almost cartoon levels of mwahahahaha. If it weren’t a true story, it would be fairly easy to write off beyond the Academy’s obsession with prosthetic noses.

Miles Teller in the jazz drummer's uniform, a  sweaty v-neck (Whiplash)
Miles Teller in the young jazz drummer’s uniform, a sweaty v-neck (Whiplash)

The better film is Whiplash; better in its subtlety of storytelling and depth of emotion, in its construction, pacing, complex character arcs and exploration of its themes. I liked Whiplash the first time I saw it, but I didn’t fully see it until the second time around. My best friend of ten years is a jazz drummer, a brilliant one who was better at the age of 15 (alright, maybe 17) than Andrew Neeman ever is in Whiplash (while I believe this to be true both as-written and as-performed, it’s specifically true because Miles Teller does all his own drumming in the film and, while he’s definitely passable, he’s definitely not a professional jazz musician). As such, I’ve spent a fair bit of the last decade lugging around cymbal bags and bass drums; I know what a complicated chart looks like and that a drummer who’s practiced his heart out has callouses covering nearly every inch of his hands. I remember my friend at the point in his career that Andrew is navigating in Whiplash– first year out of high school, all practice rooms and big band ensembles.

So I brought all that with me to my first viewing of Whiplash. That and outrageously high expectations (Miles Teller was our Emerging Artist of 2013 and Whiplash my most anticipated film of the year), plus a lecture my friend had given me about a certain New Yorker article that pointed out the flaws in the film only a jazz purist would care about (apparently Buddy Rich is a completely ridiculous person to reference as Andrew’s favourite drummer; I think the quote was “Buddy, fucking, Rich?!”). I couldn’t shake the commentary running through my head of all the things a real-life Andrew would hate about this movie (the drumming isn’t good enough; practice can’t make perfect if the talent isn’t there; did he really just put his fist through a snare drum? You know those things cost hundreds of dollars!). And I couldn’t shake the feeling that Andrew’s story was completely over-dramatic, my friend having tread a far smoother path towards the same goal (paved by more natural talent, a longer history of hard work, a smattering of luck and the sort of personality that routinely underplays the rough bits). *the spoilers start here, in case you care*. Few music teachers are even close to as intense as JK Simmons’ diabolical Fletcher, and they’re certainly not as petty. No one in their right (or even not-quite-right) mind would care enough about any music competition to sprint to the venue after getting literally hit by a truck. I’ve definitely seen zero evidence that one can’t have both a career as a jazz drummer and a girlfriend. It’s also worth noting that I’m pretty sure my best friend could have improvised his way through that original piece Fletcher springs on Andrew in the hope of destroying his career (it might not have been pretty but I think most proper jazz drummers could handle it better than Andrew does; it’s an improv medium, after all).

But then I saw it again (one of only 2 or 3 films I saw twice all year) and I saw a completely different movie. Just the ending was the same, because that ending was flawless even through my initial veil of unhelpful comparisons. This time I was able to leave behind my friend and everything I know about what it is to be a talented young man in a hyper-specific art form, and I saw Whiplash with the part of my brain that doesn’t know how much snare drums cost (and why you shouldn’t spontaneously punch them). I think all the best movies are movies you can watch over and over again but I don’t think I’ve ever clued in to a movie more thoroughly the second time around quite like I did with Whiplash.

The first thing I noticed was the Paul Reiser of it all (Paul Reiser, reminding me why I’ve always loved him). One of the very first scenes in the film is what appears to be an exposition dump – we’re introduced to Andrew’s father and his future girlfriend through a seemingly innocuously trip to the movies where Andrew plants the information that a) Fletcher’s opinion of him is really important and b) his first impression went decidedly not well. All that information is actually elsewhere in the first act, what we’re really getting here are the following things:

  • Andrew and his father are extremely close; their trips to the movies are very routine (Nicole the concession stand girl knows their regular order).
  • Andrew’s father isn’t completely sold on the music idea but isn’t opposed enough to withdraw his support (moral or financial). Most movies would have Paul Reiser give a speech to this effect; Whiplash gives him one off-hand comment about keeping your options open while also establishing his support through casual conversation that shows him really engaging in his son’s life.
  • Andrew’s father is the sort of man who says “sorry” when someone bumps into him- a key detail that informs every single thing he does and says throughout the rest of the film. It also ties in intriguingly with Fletcher’s repeated observations that Andrew’s father is a failure for teaching rather than writing (which, come to think of it, is a loaded, hypocritical observation for Fletcher to be making, not just a cruel one).
  • Andrew has inherited some of this trait, pouring raisinets over their popcorn because that’s how his dad eats it and only now admitting that he eats around them (we understand that this is a routine that’s been going on for years but Andrew is only now mentioning that he doesn’t like it).

All of these elements come into play at the dinner party, which (like the movie theatre and the girlfriend subplot) at first seems like something thrown in mostly to break up the rehearse-compete-repeat structure of the main plot but, on second glance, is actually one of the film’s most truthful and insightful scenes. Here is our first glance at Andrew’s biting side, a small hint at his boldness and the hardening of his shell that’s coming under Fletcher’s tutelage. He rips into his cousins with ferocity unlike anything we’ve seen from the character up to this point (we will only truly see it one more time in the whole film- when he’s replaced as core Studio Band drummer just before a big competition). But we also get a really important insight into the alienating phenomenon of being the sole artist in a family of educators, athletes and people who join the Model UN. “The talent at this table!… and Andrew, with his drumming” might be one of the funniest, most infuriating and most heartbreaking lines I’ve heard all year.

I feel like I missed all that, or at least didn’t really appreciate it, the first time I saw Whiplash. I appreciated the two robust leading performances and Paul Reiser’s tender supporting turn (though I definitely missed his complexity). I appreciated the pacing and that writer/director Damien Chazelle didn’t shy away from long music sequences or repetition in favour of more action. I appreciated how the film captures the feel of a rehearsal room- the setup routine, the sheet music markups, reed sucking and spit valve emptying and the guy in the corner making out with his girlfriend instead of warming up but who still somehow sits first chair. I appreciated the brutality of the film, the blood, sweat and tears side of an art form that looks very dignified and often even calm in performance. I saw all that (I did like it the first time around) but there was so much that I missed.

Take, for the ultimate example, that unbelievable ending (the best of any film this year in my opinion). Fletcher tricks Andrew into making a fool of himself onstage at a career-making-or-breaking performance, revealing at the last possible moment that he knows it was Andrew who got him fired from his teaching post (for, you know, verbal, mental and even physical abuse). Andrew runs offstage into the arms of his father, who suggests they leave now and forget the whole thing (remember, he’s an overly apologetic man with the marks of a caring coward). Instead, Andrew returns to the stage and starts to play, mouthing “fuck you” at a confounded Fletcher and cueing the band to join him. It was cool and triumphant the first time I saw it and was just as cool and triumphant the second time around. But there was more there this time. JK Simmons’ masterful (and mostly silent) performance in this scene is impossible to miss, carrying Fletcher from a place of panic to fury to confusion, inspiration and, ultimately to pride. Fletcher plays, in about 2 minutes, a full film’s arc, coming to rest either in a place of self-righteous validation or a place of slightly humbled respect. The fact that the film ends without ruling out either possibility is a major part of its genius. But what I saw far more clearly the second time around was the Andrew side of this scene.

Moving beyond the annoying fact that he can apparently only play two songs (“Caravan” and “Whiplash”) and should definitely not crash and burn quite as hard as he does when Fletcher sets him up, the most interesting thing about the low-point of this scene is Andrew’s instinct to flee. In fleeing, he finds his father, the man who instilled in him that overdeveloped flight instinct. As act three Andrew turns his back on an escape plan and walks back onto the stage to fight, it’s enlightening to remember the raisinets from act one. At this point in the scene it’s also interesting to reflect on who’s really been driving the action of Whiplash from the beginning; it hasn’t been Andrew (despite the fact that Screenwriting 101 dictates active protagonists at all costs; luckily Chazelle doesn’t appear to care what they teach in Screenwriting 101). Fletcher has dictated every moment (with the exception of Andrew’s formal complaint against him) from the very first scene when he strolled into Andrew’s practice room and asked for a double-time swing. What I find fascinating here is how control over the story and control over the music is intertwined. Most jazz ensembles, especially the smaller ones (as you can see when Fletcher is playing at that bar), are not conductor-led. In the absence of a baton, the leader is the drummer. He sets the tempo, he cues the other musicians, he generally has more control over the shape of a piece than any other contributor save the actual composer (who, in jazz, is already so much less powerful than in all other musical forms). The drummer can lead in the total absence of a conductor; without the drummer, a conductor is just a man holding a stick. From the visceral physicality involved in playing the drums (all four limbs, all at once) to the dramatically valuable fact that a band usually has only one drummer at a time (compared to, say, four trombones), Whiplash is a story that couldn’t be told using any other instrument. But the biggest reason for that is what happens when Andrew walks back out onto that stage. He leads. He sets the tempo (remember how often we heard Fletcher criticize Andrew by telling him that he was playing “not quite my tempo”) and cues the band; he even chooses the song (again, he only seems to know two, but that’s not the point). It’s the only time in the whole movie when Andrew completely drives the action (even his complaint against Fletcher was his dad’s idea), the one moment when he’s conducting the music.

But, on the other hand, just as Andrew is triumphing over Fletcher’s tyranny, usurping his power over the band and placing him about one step away from redundant, he’s also proving him right and fulfilling his dreams. And he knows that that’s what he’s doing; he does it anyway. It was maybe two scenes ago that Fletcher gave Andrew that brilliant speech meant to exonerate him of any sins and justify his actions, at least to himself – “there are no two words in the English language more harmful than Good Job”. Andrew asks if there’s a line, any risk that pushing too hard might discourage the next Charlie Parker from becoming Charlie Parker (a slightly misrepresented story about Charlie Parker having a cymbal thrown at his head being the basis of Fletcher’s ball-busting approach). Fletcher responds that the next Charlie Parker could not be discouraged. In rising to the occasion, returning to his drum kit and proving that he can indeed be great, Andrew, by the logic of that speech, validates every terrible thing Fletcher has ever done or said in the name of provoking Andrew to greatness (and finding “his” Charlie Parker).

The ending of Whiplash is full of triumph but, as we cut to black one second too soon to hear any wisp of applause, we’re left uncertain of what that triumph means. Is it the triumph of Andrew over Fletcher who sought to take him down in retribution for losing his job? Is it the triumph of Fletcher over those who would doubt his methods, having proven that he can produce greatness (in the form of Andrew’s killer drum solo)? Maybe it’s the triumph of Andrew’s talent over the politics and preoccupations that had previously limited it (in returning to the stage he was leading to Fletcher’s triumph but leaving the stage would have deprived him of his own). Or the triumph of Andrew finally earning Fletcher’s respect. Or his father’s. Or his own.

It’s a choose-your-own-thematic-adventure of endings: a haunting story of evil’s victory over kindness for the cynics who loved 2014 for its many portraits of many sociopaths; a story of inspiration and determination, courage and hard-won respect for those of us who found nothing to love in Foxcatcher. However you see it, whichever ending you choose, it’s worth seeing twice because Whiplash only gets better and shows you more.