The following contains spoilers for Whiplash. You have been warned.
Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash was the talked about feature coming out of Sundance Film Festival this past January, winning both the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award for Drama. Though maybe not as buzzy as 2013’s winner Fruitvale Station, the company was good; Beasts of the Southern Wild, Like Crazy, Winter’s Bone, and Precious have all won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize in recent years, and three of those five went on to Best Picture Oscar nominations.
There’s a lot to dig into in Whiplash, so James Tisch and I took some time to talk about the film now that we’ve both had a chance to see it for ourselves.
James: My thoughts on Whiplash have already been published, so what was your reaction?
Tim: I think I’m mostly in line with your overall analysis of the film, but I think I come away slightly less impressed than you were. It’s a good film, no doubt, and I was tense through the entire thing. It’s an adrenaline show without any (fireball) explosions. But it’s also a very myopic film. Which I suppose is sort of to its credit to say – I’m pretty sure that’s what it was going for – but I don’t totally land with the film thematically, and the myopia kept me from connecting as fully as it might have liked.
James: The success of the film is completely within the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher. I found that relationship to be so vividly drawn that I wasn’t overly upset at the fact that some of the “plottier” moments didn’t exactly land.
Tim: That’s something you mentioned in your review, too, so let’s start really digging in there. I think the two principal parts you’re referring to are the scene where Andrew has dinner with what I take is his extended family, and then the whole plotline with the girlfriend, Nicole. I guess the girlfriend subplot serves a purpose, but that dinner scene did nothing but annoy me. I didn’t think it added anything of significant value, and was just an odd aside, time that might have been spent in more fruitful places.
James: The girlfriend subplot felt a bit underdeveloped, but I think for the most part it worked in establishing how Fletcher has gotten into Andrew’s head. Andrew summons the courage to ask Nicole out on a date after being accepted into his studio band – a subtle touch to speak of his growing confidence. The sessions with Fletcher grow more intense, yet there’s a hint that Andrew’s sort of cut from the same cloth as Fletcher. The scene when he dumps Nicole is reflective of that. Nicole as a character was one-dimensional, but think some of Andrew’s scenes with her have a little bit of value as his character is flipped.
Tim: Eh, I’m not sure how far I can go with you as far as the subtlety of the scene is concerned – it’s pretty on the nose to me – but I’ll agree it’s effective to communicate something about Andrew’s development. I have to wonder, though – we see almost nothing about the other students at Shaffer. With the exception of the scene where Fletcher chews out the trombones (a scene which is pretty exclusively for Andrew’s benefit, since we see that side of Fletcher plenty), we never really see the other members of Studio Band. They seem like pros who just go about their business and get everything right. Andrew and the other drummers suffer mightily by comparison. I might have preferred a subplot where Andrew explored social connection with some of his bandmates instead, and I think a purpose similar to the Nicole subplot could have been accomplished.
James: The movie might have been stronger had it stayed entirely at Shaffer. While I felt the few scenes with Nicole were strong, they didn’t necessarily need to be there. Neither did Andrew’s father. Had Whiplash stayed entirely focused on life at the conservatory, it might have been a tighter, overall more contained film. Yet, even with the flourishes that may not have needed to be there, I think writer/director Damien Chazelle touches on something pretty incredible with relationship between Fletcher and Andrew. I found that relationship strong enough to outweigh the weaknesses of the story.
Tim: I’m curious what in particular was appealing to you there. I didn’t dislike the portrayal, but I suppose it was so unceasingly malicious that there didn’t seem to be many places it could go. Fletcher is never likable, and it’s hard to even pity him (though Simmons is great).
James: I don’t really think either of them are particularly likable, but both feed off of one another is way that felt rather honest to me (even if some of the narrative requires a suspension of disbelief.) Andrew wants to be a great drummer and Fletcher thinks he’s got the means to bring greatness out of people. In the end, they’re both two sides of the same coin.
Tim: That may be part of my hesitance to sing the praises of the movie without a little more qualification, that I can’t go to that place emotionally with the characters. I guess I can see how they do for the most part, but I’m not on that journey with them (and particularly Andrew). But on the note of Andrew, what did you think of Miles Teller? And are you coming in a Teller fan?
James: I thought Teller did a really good job. Simmons has the showy part in the film, but Teller gave Andrew a reality that I took to. I am a fan of his work overall (especially The Spectacular Now and Rabbit Hole), but felt there was a maturity to his work here that he’s never shown before.
Tim: This was definitely my favorite Teller performance to date, but I’m coming from a bit of a different angle. Teller, to me, has almost always been passable, but never a standout. He’s not the part I remember of Rabbit Hole. I have a middling opinion of The Spectacular Now overall, and I think he was pretty bad in Divergent (which might not have been entirely his fault). But I agree with the word “maturity” here. I think he did a lot to capture a guy who’s both 19 and yet pretty sure of what he wants to do in the world.
James: Curiously, on the subject of The Spectacular Now, there’s a sequence in Whiplash that is eerily similar. What did you think of the car crash sequence?
Tim: Oh, I thought it was pretty bad, and a lot of the problem I have with it ties back to some of my other issues with the way that the movie portrays Andrew’s social circle. In the lead up, he’s calling someone to tell them he’s on his way, but there’s no mention of the fairly legitimate excuse that his bus had a flat tire and he’s finding a way to get to the competition anyways. I get that Fletcher’s not one for excuses, but after the accident there’s no way Andrew walks away even pumped full of adrenaline, and there’s NO WAY that even Fletcher allows him to perform covered in his own blood.
James: Well, to be fair, Andrew’s blood is all over Whiplash.
James: But I agree the sequence doesn’t work and it was my biggest problem with the film as a whole. I get that it expresses Andrew’s drive and obsession, but the whole sequence, aside from not making much sense, has a weird tone to it that felt distatched from the film as a whole. It’s an odd melodramatic note in the film, yet strangely it’s also played for laughs.
Tim: How so?
James: Maybe not so much huge belly laughs, but there’s a sort of comedy in Andrew’s relentlessness to get to the concert on time – it felt, at least to me, a bit cartoonish.
Tim: Ah, I see. And all the more so because after he gets there the first time, he’s forgotten his drumsticks in the rental office.
James: Yes, the sequence hit a bunch of strange notes all at once. It almost felt like a farce for a moment. However, as bothered as I was about it, I think the film regained its footing pretty quickly. Simmons’s authoritative presence in the movie had that effect on me, I suppose.
Tim: Well from one unintentionally funny moment to another, there was one repeated something that I found pretty laughable. Want to guess what it was?
James: What was that?
Tim: To lead into this, you mentioned in your review that there were some potentially sexual undercurrents to the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher. So that’s pre-point number one. Second, I already can’t help but think of drum solos as musical masturbation. And then we arrive at Teller’s expression when he’s trying really hard to nail some particular point in a chart.
James: I understand that reaction, but feel there’s something of substance perhaps in there. There is a potentially sexual undercurrent in the relationship that I found rather interesting. It’s certainly there in Andrew’s “drumming,” but pointedly in Fletcher’s constant berating of Andrew as he spews homophobic vitriol at him. In a weird way, they’re both masturbating.
Tim: And actually, if you go there with it, you circle back around to the idea that they’re competing antagonistically against one another. This is way far under the surface to me, we have to go through a lot of layers of arguably more simple and relatable hate/tough love/whatever you want to call it, but it does speak to the strength of that central relationship as the driving force in the movie that there are so many layers to explore.
James: Absolutely and the dynamic relationship (abusive, cruel and filled with so many undercurrents) between Andrew and Fletcher is really the only thing that makes Whiplash so intriguing. It’s so intriguing and masterfully performed that I was able to sort of forgive the fat of Chazelle’s script. This isn’t a plot-driven movie (and whenever it tries to become one, the film suffers as a result), but an explosive two-hander. Teller and Simmons also, I think, do such a good job of nailing tiny moments that seem to give each character perhaps more dimension that was scripted.
Tim: I totally agree, the good parts far outweigh the minor failings, especially when it comes to the technical assembly of the script. I do want to touch on another one of the bits that didn’t quite land for me, though: the ending. In its favor, Fletcher’s blindside of Andrew was brutally effective, and I love that Andrew came back in to steal Fletcher’s thunder. But I was a little disappointed that that huge drum solo didn’t end anywhere except for a final note. I kept expecting Andrew to just steal the whole set and lead straight into the next song. Maybe it’s a case of me having too many of my own expectations for how the scene should turn out, but I was a little underwhelmed by the film’s final moments.
James: I sort of surrendered at the end. It’s a mad sequence that intellectually I could pick apart, but on an emotional level I totally succumbed to it. I fully believe that the last ten minutes or so are likely why Whiplash has registered as a critical hit, because it’s such a rousing finale.
Tim: See, and I think that’s exactly why I don’t seem to love this film quite as much as some do. For whatever reason, I’m just not connecting on that primal, emotional level. I’m seeing the whole movie in slightly more intellectual eyes, not that I can’t recognize the emotion, but that I’m not swept along by it. The last ten minutes are fairly effective for me, but a little ponderous nonetheless and I think the landing could have been cleaner.
James: The ending reminded me of the ending to Black Swan in a lot of ways as both films concluded with artists achieving their version of perfection in a way. Black Swan was a strange, surrealist movie while Whiplash is reality-based, but I think both films end on a high note of pure artistic pride. Do you think Whiplash might have add a connected with you had it been more heightened visually?
Tim: That’s a good question. I don’t think so, because none of the movie went in that direction. At a minimum, it’s hard to play “What If?” there because the movie would have been so different. As we’ve already talked about a little, I think what I wanted most was a little more sense of the world Andrew was a participant in. Again, seeing relationships with the other members of the Studio Band, seeing their opinions on Fletcher, on Shaffer, on their struggles, I think that would have been very valuable. I was never on this level musically, but I remember the anticipation of competitions even from middle school band, so I did find some connection there. And I never had an instructor quite like Fletcher, but I can understand Andrew’s drive. I’m actually really interested to get my brother’s opinion on the movie (he hasn’t seen it yet, but he spent two years of college as a jazz bass performance major).
James: I would like to know how Whiplash resonates with professional musicians. What I really liked about the film was even if every moment didn’t always land, it felt like there was a certain honestly beneath the surface. That the studio band is a all-boys club, elements like that. Chazelle himself studied the drums in high school – maybe this was how he viewed that experience.
Tim: Maybe this is the best way to sum up my connection to the material: I appreciated the honesty in the expression of the film’s presentation for all the reasons you just mentioned. But I’m also not sure I agree with the thematic absolute that Fletcher, Andrew, and perhaps Chazelle all believe in. Of course, having something to push against brings out the best, most innovative work in people. But the unending negativity that Fletcher represents, I don’t think I can go there as far as that being the only, or even the best, means to pull greatness out of people. And I suppose there is that moment at the very end where Fletcher is working with Andrew, even guiding him through the solo, but that seems too minor by comparison to me.
James: Yet, I think in the end that both Andrew and Fletcher are changed by having one another in their lives. Whether it’s for the better or the worst is left up to debate.
Tim: I’ll buy that, and I do appreciate the complexity that is presented. And so I come back to it: I like the movie, I think it’s very good and very well made, but at least for me personally, it can’t ascend to any sort of greatness. I’ll readily allow that it could for others.