Elegantly disguised as a film about jazz, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is more a parable for obsession, poising itself over the tightrope quandary of whether art is best attained through mad determination or balanced clear-headedness. At the onset, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is intent on only one goal: greatness, and in particular the greatness attained by the likes of Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker. He doesn’t mind the addictions and the lonely, premature deaths that accompany these myths, so long as the tongues of strangers speak his name and so long as he is remembered.
Most chilling about these long-fabled yearnings is that they are not unfounded, happening often enough to warrant their deification. So the story goes that if one is impassioned and single-minded to the core of his hunger and his existence, immortality is indeed feasible. With a doubtful gaze, Whiplash questions this eternal rhetoric, but never offers its own answer, which is further reason for the film being the marvel that it is. Unrelentingly curious, eternally vacillating over the one question it asks by neither seeking an easy retort nor settling on a singular, elaborate answer, Whiplash is perhaps the most powerful film ever made about the machinations of art and the temperament necessary for a great artist.
Solitary and bent on his objective, Miles is discovered by the principal instructor of his conservatory and invited to perform with the Studio Band, an ensemble brimmed with excellence together with obedience to the monocratic Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons in his best role to date). In his ensemble, Fletcher is looking for the next Charlie Parker. Though never plainly illuminated, doubt over the possibility of constructing genius within the bounds of an institution is also implied. Nevertheless, in order to channel that excellence, Fletcher drives his students with a contemptuous sway, discharging profanities and going as far as publicly taunting them with the troubles they had secretly shared with him. He is daring them to break, and if they do, he may cut them from the band – or he may not. It’s that very unpredictability that keeps his musicians on edge.
What’s striking about the film is that the distress of the ensemble is never individualized past Neiman. Neither the film’s focus nor Fletcher’s ever appears to tilt toward another member of the band, as he recurrently only seems concerned with Neiman. Far from this being a mere sign of the film’s favoritism toward its protagonist, this machination actually shades the psyche of Neiman vis-à-vis his mentor, and more essentially, cleverly touches upon the egotism of a great artist. Anything that is said – Neiman’s subjectivity seems to suggest – is an indirect allusion to him, and any challenge that is set forth is meant only as a test for him. In view of this, Neiman’s egotism steers him toward a self-fulfilling prophecy. Dyed with conceit, his subjectivity considers itself the pith of his mentor’s attention, and because of that, he excels, in turn suggesting that an exceptional artist might necessitate an exceptional ego as well.
That ego, however, must be curbed to a certain extent, and Fletcher’s role as an instructor serves precisely to that end. Unnecessarily vile and wicked, Fletcher wrests obedience from his students in order to mollify their conceit. Though also guided by him musically, humility is the true skill his students accrue from their instructor.
Even so, Fletcher’s precepts are founded upon his misconstruing a fabled story. Neiman is told this story on numerous occasions, of Charlie Parker and his first solo performance, where Parker’s second-rate performance prompted Jo Jones to throw a cymbal at his head, nearly decapitating him. According to Fletcher, Parker didn’t let discouragement quell his thirst, and instead retreated for a year to hone his skills, only to arrive at the stage again as “Bird” for a historic concert. As Richard Brody points out, however, no cymbal was ever thrown at Parker’s direction. Instead, “Jo Jones pulled off the cymbal and said ‘DING’ on the floor. Some would call it a crash, and they were right, a DING trying to pass itself as under a crash. Bird jumped… and it startled him and he eased out of the solo.” Brody sees this as a glaring error of the film, but it can just as well be a cleverly-interposed intimation, an implicit cue so Fletcher’s competency can be put into question, further whetting the film’s uncertainty with regards to the institutionalization of art.
The misinterpretation of myth supplying the marrow of his authoritarian pedagogy prompts Fletcher to catapult objects at his students, trying to engender in them what may be styled “The Bird Effect,” striving to carve out excellence through mockery, and weeding out those unfit for it. This approach works to the extent that it often launches his students to substantial musical ranks. That it might also debilitate his pupils in other spheres of life is no concern for him. For Fletcher jazz is the only life, and thus fear, stress, and anxiety do not compute.
Taking to his mentor, Neiman sets out to abide by the same rite, rejecting the outside world for music, and in turn, transmuting into the very likeness of conceit. Neither his skill nor the necessity of Fletcher’s musical influence on him comes come into question, as skill does not wane alongside one’s modesty. The change manifests in worse ways, leading to his humbling, and then ultimately, a more varied rise. Perhaps Charlie Parker also spent that one year not just breathing music, but mastering equanimity as well, learning to coalesce a dogged drive with spirit, a sense of spirit that might only ensue from such humblings.
For a movie about jazz, Whiplash for the most part contains very little of it, never venturing to commit to standards beyond just Caravan and of course Whiplash. This shortage is compensated for in the breathtaking, final minutes of the film, focused solely on performance, and evoking precisely the faultless narrative that can be told through a disciplined but unhindered piece of art.
In truth, the film is not about a genre of music, or music for that matter. By drawing on one distinctive structure, Chazelle endeavors to parabolize art itself, casting round for a delineation of a great artist, and in turn, finding more than one picture and one myth. Though fables of greatness might drive artists, they do not guarantee their journey’s end. Rather, most vital is a self-aware sort of curiosity; the self-awareness curbing the conceit, and the unswerving curiosity forever sowing some novel challenge. It is this very fusion that appears to have inspired Whiplash, a film that is as expertly musical as it is cinematic, and as tenacious as great art should be.