Movie Review: Whiplash

Whiplash_posterby Tim Jones2/22/15
When hurting feelings are part of the course curriculum  •  With the Academy Awards being televised tonight, I thought I would try to get out and see Whiplash, one that has been nominated in five categories including big picture, best actor in a supporting role, best adapted screenplay, film editing and sound mixing.

It is an unbelievably intense movie, which is surprising since the story takes place in a music school, one that is clearly modeled after The Julliard School in New York City, the best of its kind in the country. It’s about a first year student, Andrew, played by Miles Teller, who dreams of becoming a jazz drummer and a great one at that, only to find out that his instructor is like a marine drill sargeant dressed in a black t-shirt and pants. It appears from the beginning that this guy doesn’t cut any of his students an inch of slack when it comes to their musical education and training.

Fletcher, the band instructor played by J.K.Simmons, is particularly rough on Andrew, who tries his best to meet the nearly impossible demands put upon him by Fletcher. Fletcher has a mouth that could rival that of soldiers in combat and an attitude that could be even rougher than the most hardened war veteran. He looks like he could have easily been in the military, with his bald head and a physique that looks like he’s in great shape for a man his age. In one scene early in the movie he brings Andrew to tears after slapping in the face multiple times for failing to successfully perform a drumming exercise he wants him to do.[pullquote]It’s actually a great commentary and an indictment of the country’s educational system where the promotion of self-esteem (and victimization) has become more important than excellence and hurt feelings.[/pullquote]

The key scene comes late in the movie after Fletcher has been fired from the school after its learned that his teaching technique has inflicted such emotional damage to one of his former students that he commits suicide within years after graduating from the school. Contributing to his firing was a fight that occurred between Fletcher and Andrew. It’s a physical encounter between the two you can feel building throughout the movie. It’s just surprising it didn’t happen sooner. Andrew is also dismissed from school for attacking Fletcher.

This scene is when the two have a chance encounter that’s cordial in an NYC nightclub where Fletcher is playing piano with a jazz combo. The two sit down for a drink, where Fletcher explains why he was such a bastard as a band and music teacher.

First, he takes what I thought was a pretty good shot at Starbucks and the CDs you sometimes see on their counters peddling the watered-down jazz that’s been homogenized like so much else in today’s culture. Fletcher goes on to say to Andrew that the reason he was so hard on him and his other students was to really push them to try to achieve greatness, that in order to really be successful one also has to push themselves to their limits and that too often people settle for mediocrity. It’s actually a great commentary and an indictment of the country’s educational system where the promotion of self-esteem (and victimization) has become more important than excellence and hurt feelings.

Fletcher recounts the story of how Charlies Parker, early in his career as a teenager, gets soundly rejected by a mentor/teacher only to wake up the next day more determined than ever to achieve greatness, which is exactly what he did. Fletcher goes on to say the two worst words in the English language are “great job,” implying that like jazz itself, greatness and excellence have been homogenized with so much focus being put on students being taught to feel good about themselves rather than being the best that they can.[pullquote]…the two worst words in the English language are “great job,” implying that like jazz itself, greatness and excellence have been homogenized . . . students being taught to feel good about themselves rather than being the best that they can.[/pullquote]

Another particularly noteworthy scene comes about halfway through the movie during a family dinner where Andrew is trying to defend his career in music to some of his family members. He says he would rather die early in life while contributing to lasting greatness as Charlie Parker did, and that this is much more worthy than investing a long life in a career with no lasting legacy.

The final scene is one that is totally unexpected and comes with a major “twist,” a surprise that I doubt anyone will see coming. It has an intensity to it that will make one leave the movie in awe.

Whiplash does a great job when it comes to portraying how political correctness has watered down our society to the point where excellence, where it exists, is hardly recognizable anymore except possibly to the very few who are paying attention. Whiplash itself is a movie that is definitely recognizable excellence. • (1294 views)

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14 Responses to Movie Review: Whiplash

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    A truly excellent review, Tim. I’ll put that movie on my list of “must see.”

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    I figured something like that would be the explanation — in essence, the “tiger mom” school of education. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. “One size fits all” can never work for humans because there are always exceptions. (Indeed, I use that as the First Rule of Generalizations. The Second Rule is that the First Rule itself is a generalization . . .)

  3. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    J.K. Simmons won the Oscar for supporting actor in “Whiplash.” “Birdman” won best picture. And that’s a movie I’d like to see if only because of its full title (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). This wouldn’t be a libertarian film, would it?

    I wonder if this year art was a little be more on stage than politics. Yes, the incredibly mediocre “The Imitation Game” got a lot of nominations for having a homosexual main character. But it didn’t pick up any big prizes. Neither did “Selma.” Still, not having seen “Birdman,” I don’t know if this theory will hold up.

  4. Tim Jones says:

    Like you Brad, I’m also intrigued with Birdman because of its subtitle. I also caught a couple of brief clips, one with Emma Stone where she’s lecturing someone to get over himself and that he’s not the center of the universe (I’m totally paraphrasing here). That line alone has me wanting to see it, too.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Mark Davis is filling in for Michael Medved on his radio show. Michael is undergoing treatment and prospects are said to be very good.

      Anyway, Davis said he and his wife watched “Birdman” right before the Oscars. At the end of the movie, they both looked at each other and said, “Huh?”

      Davis describes it as one of those cases where the acting is good, the cinematography is good, the directing is good, the dialogue is good, but at the end of the day, you just don’t care about any of the characters. And he said the ending was particularly dumb as well.

      Also, he said the theme of the movie itself was directed right toward the wheelhouse of Academy voters. Apparently the story is something about actors and critics and how the critics never really understand what it is to an an actor. It made it sound as if someone self-consciously wrote the story just to get an Oscar nomination. If so, it worked, and big-time.

      But I’d want to see the thing for myself. And eventually I think I will.

      • Timothy Lane says:

        That makes me wonder, did the Vincent Price movie Theater of Blood get any significant Oscar nominations? It involved a Shakespearean actor named Edward Lionheart avenging himself on the critics, and Price once mentioned that a LOT of actors wanted to play the role.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          IMDB.com shows one nomination (by Golden Scroll) for best horror film.

          • Timothy Lane says:

            Well, that sort of information can be useful. Back in the mid-1970s, there was a movie called The Little Girl Who Lived Down the Lane, which had an ad that was almost good enough to get me to go see it. Later I heard that it had one some award as best horror movie of the year. So when I saw the book (by Laird Koenig) at a used-book store, I picked it up. It turned out to be quite good, and later I saw the movie (very closely based on the book, with Martin Sheen as the very slimy villain and Jody Foster as the title character).

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              I don’t believe I’ve ever seen the Vincent Price movie. You’ve stoked my interest. Nor have I likely seen that Jodie Foster movie. And it’s fairly highly-rated at IMDB.com.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              Ah…Diana Rigg. I’m there with bells on. I’ll see if I can find “Theatre of Blood” somewhere.

  5. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    I got to watch “Whiplash” yesterday. Thanks to Tim for his excellent review which is, generally speaking, spot-on. My favorite part of this site is the movie and book reviews.

    I mentioned this to my brother, who watched it with me, even before reading the same post over at IMDB.com: This movie is the jazz equivalent of “Full Metal Jacket.”

    The positive for this movie is that it is indeed entertaining. You won’t find yourself, as I so often do, looking at the theatre clock or bringing up on the screen how much time is left in the movie.

    The down side is that it is very unrealistic and not very deep. What was needed was a little more back-story on the motivation for the teacher (played by Simmons) to be so harsh. It’s believable to some extent that he is very dedicated to finding the next Charlie Parker and believes mental and even physical abuse are the avenues to these things. (Could be, at least in some rare cases — such as training soldiers for combat on the battlefield.)

    But his verbal abuse seems more an an excuse just to be nasty or to vent, thus a little back-story or side-story would have made this guy seem more real. Maybe he has a wife dying of cancer or something.

    There are some particularly good scenes in this movie, one of them being where Andrew (Miles Teller) preemptively breaks up with his girlfriend, explaining to her that things are bound to deteriorate, and resentments build, as he strives to become the best drummer he can be. It’s a good monologue. It was as if a Woody Allen film had broken out for a moment. There never is any resolution to this story, nor does this kind of witty, playful, and poignant schtick thread its way through the movie. It was more of a one-off scene, and there are several of those in the movie.

    In fact, if anything, this movie is held together by the nearly constant verbal abuse by Fletcher. And I found his Andrew Dice Clay-like stuff to be hilarious. I’m not sure if most people were shocked or the intent was to shock. But how could you not howl with laughter at some of the un-PC homosexual slurs? He says to one apparently homosexual drummer something like, “Can’t you keep the beat as fast as you give a hand job to your buddy?” And I found it interesting that this kind of stuff was allowable, for I’m sure that if the teacher had used words derogative of blacks that this might have been a no-no.

    But in this culture today, homosexuality has become a common butt (no pun intended…I think) of jokes. “Butthurt” is a common term as well as “that is just so gay.” There are undoubtedly many others, but I digress.

    A couple of times the movie lost me because of its sheer implausibility and its reliance on what ultimately is low-brow foul language (funny as it often was). But what the movie did do (which was still highly implausible) was finish well.

    I kinda-sorta suppose one could interpret this movie as hard-assed excellence winning over namby-pamby “atta boy, good job” feminism. But that wouldn’t be my take on the film. Ultimately, the characters and situations are so unrealistic, you just have to view the story and characters as a sort of “special effects” — pleasing to the eye, but no one supposes that Superman can really fly.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      One interesting possibility is that the instructor based his behavior on that of military boot camps. That was one thing that occurred to me reading the review. Perhaps he had served (this might depend on his age; anyone even slightly older than me has a good likelihood of having been drafted if not volunteering), or knew someone who did and told him about it. And boot camp works, however unpleasantly.

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Could be, Timothy.

        First off, let me state the obvious: It’s okay for movies to not be documentaries. What fun would movies be if everything always had to be real?

        That said, here’s an opinion by someone at IMDB.com who seems to have some experience with being in a music school. And I think he makes so many good points that touch on why the movie lost me a couple times. It just wasn’t very believable, even for Hollywood.

        Had this been his father, then fine. But a music teacher, as this reviewer suggested, would not have many students, no matter his skill, if he treated kids this way. And it’s likely he’d last about 5 minutes in any actual academic setting. Bobby Knight might have been a ball-buster, but he was no monster. Surely there is a difference between a masculine sterness and this overt maniac played by Simmons. At least I hope there is.

        Again, none of this criticism should hide the fact that I found this movie very watchable and do recommend it with the various caveats already mentioned.

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