One of the most terrifying movie monsters ever is a pale and bald creature that disturbingly resembles a disembodied penis with arms and legs. It possesses superhuman hearing and can discern sounds that are unnoticeable to everyone else's ears. This creature prefers to psychologically destroy its victims or leave them a bloodied mess when it's done with them. It frequently screams and barks, but it's at its most terrifying when it's in quieter modes because you don't know when it's going to attack. Dressed in all black, it goes by the name of Terence Fletcher, and it stalks the music halls and rehearsal rooms of New York, looking for future jazz musicians to bully around in last year's mesmerizing Sundance hit about the blood, sweat and tears that go into creating art, Whiplash.
During director Damien Chazelle's second feature film, J.K. Simmons, who won a Golden Globe this week for his terrific performance as Fletcher and is now a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee, looks like one of H.R. Giger's aliens whenever he shouts. The lighting techniques of Whiplash cinematographer Sharone Meir accentuate the prickly jazz ensemble conductor's blobfish-like, gelatinous skin and the angry Malcolm Tucker veins and lines on his face or head when he grimaces or browbeats his conservatory students into becoming perfect musicians, as if to convey that Fletcher is not of this Earth. This tyrant who snaps at drummers whenever the double-time swing isn't played to his liking has been compared to the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket and the foul-mouthed alpha males in David Mamet plays, but the vibe I get from Fletcher is more like part Giger alien, part Nosferatu, part Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast and part that muscular and effeminate dance instructor douchebag who tried to rape Lucinda Dickey in the first Breakin' movie.
So when Fletcher's latest unfortunate protégé, Andrew Neiman--an aspiring jazz drummer who worships Buddy Rich and is excellently portrayed by Miles Teller as an introverted and self-destructive perfectionist who's more along the lines of Travis Bickle, rather than a Tom Cruise-style maverick that the audience is supposed to root for--finally expresses that he's had enough of Fletcher's abuse, you end up cheering for Fletcher's beating like you did when Don Logan got his ass whupped by Gal, his wife and their housemates in Sexy Beast. That's how abusive Fletcher is in Whiplash. He approaches Don Logan levels of inflicting verbal abuse.
But unlike Don, Fletcher gets back up after his beating like it never happened and continues to find other ways to torment Andrew. In a nicely sneaky move, Chazelle robs the audience of the cathartic comeuppance that Fletcher would receive in a lesser movie. Chazelle is all about flouting expectations. He steers Whiplash away from turning into a crowd-pleaser about an unconventional musician who triumphs over conventionality and adversity and ends up besting his detestable mentor. Chazelle is after something darker and more complex and ambiguous. In Whiplash, Chazelle, who based Andrew's ordeals on his own high school experiences as a drummer who had an abusive mentor, raises questions like "If there's a case, even one isolated case, that brutalizing someone yields great art, does that justify the behavior?" and then leaves them unanswered.
You know the things Fletcher says about jazz and the ways he thinks it should be performed? And how about that story he likes to tell about Charlie Parker's rise to greatness? How much of all those things is really bullshit? Is fabricating lies about music a huge part of Fletcher's brand of sadism as well? (Speaking of deception about music, you know that jazz standard Andrew identifies as "Jackie Hill, 1932" to impress his girlfriend Nicole when they hear old jazz during their pizzeria date? If you tried to Google "Jackie Hill 1932" after watching Whiplash, that standard was actually a fake tune created for the scene by Justin Hurwitz, Whiplash's clever and skilled primary composer, whose vibrant Whiplash "Overture" theme, which Hurwitz calls "fast, complicated and dense," is now in rotation on AFOS.) Chazelle also leaves it up to the audience to marinate on Fletcher's opinions on jazz, but in the movie's only misstep, it doesn't let the audience in on what black jazz musicians, particularly Andrew's black bandmates, really think of this self-aggrandizing white bandleader, a guest in their house. I would have loved to have seen a couple of those musicians share a laugh about how Fletcher fails to intimidate them and they don't buy his bullshit, much like how several black artists or writers find Iggy Azalea's music to be bullshit. Simmons hasn't been this intimidating since the first few times he made his mark on screen: 1) as a racist church bomber during a guest shot in the first Law & Order/Homicide: Life on the Street crossover event, 2) as a corrupt NYPD sergeant in a New York Undercover episode that aired only a month after his Homicide guest shot and 3) as neo-Nazi leader Schillinger on Oz a year after those villainous guest shots. What about his portrayal of J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man movies? Wasn't he intimidating there? That's a Disney version of intimidating, pal.
And what would be the Disney version of Whiplash? It would probably end with Fletcher and Andrew reaching some sort of understanding after their falling-out--Fletcher apologizes for being a dick, instead of justifying his dickishness like he does in Chazelle's movie when he lambasts the rest of present-day jazz for becoming subpar--and then they team up to give a perfect big blowout of a jazz concert that all the jazz critics in the audience will be writing and tweeting about. Or it would probably end with Andrew walking away from music forever and deciding that living a normal life is better than turning into another Fletcher because his miserable time at the conservatory made him realize that he doesn't need affirmation from Fletcher and that this asshole of a teacher is an egomaniac who, to borrow the late Sir Peter Ustinov's favorite description of his difficult-to-please Spartacus co-star Charles Laughton, hangs around waiting to be offended. But Chazelle's movie doesn't end either way because it isn't a simplistic bad-teacher story about the student who's right and the teacher who realizes he was wrong. Andrew is just as culpable for his own bloody-fingered suffering and misery as Fletcher is. The only likable thing about Andrew is his taste in heist movies (he's seen going to a repertory theater screening of the classic 1954 French heist flick Rififi).
It's not like Andrew fell off the turnip truck when we first see his introverted and workaholic self, practicing in the conservatory and keeping to himself. The seeds for Andrew's transformation into an unlikable mini-Fletcher are there before he joins Fletcher's band, even in something as minor and innocuous as Andrew's distaste for the weird but inoffensive way his failed author dad Jim (Paul Reiser) likes to scatter Raisinets into his movie theater popcorn at the Rififi screening. Andrew's drive to become the best jazz drummer stems from what appears to be a mostly silent resentment of his dad's preference for walking away from writing and living an ordinary, pressure-free life over becoming the successful author that Andrew thinks he should have become. It also stems from his resentment of Jim's brother (Chris Mulkey) and his sports jock sons, who bully Jim and Andrew about their past and present preferences for artistic pursuits over athletic ones, but in less brutal forms of bullying than Fletcher's (okay, maybe Andrew's verbal smackdown of his cousins at the dinner table after what appears to have been years of quietly putting up with their competitive and outgoing nature is the one other likable thing about Andrew). That drive of Andrew's is so intense he doesn't mind putting up with Fletcher's abuse even when he hates it and he doesn't care who he alienates to become the best. The scene where Andrew breaks up with Nicole (Melissa Benoist) because he thinks she'd be too much of a distraction from his drumming and he finds her to be too much of an underachiever is so difficult to watch I kept waiting for the camera to turn away like cinematographer Michael Chapman's camera does to accentuate the painfulness of Travis getting dumped on the phone in Taxi Driver. But in another of Chazelle's many ways of making the audience squirm throughout Whiplash, the camera never does.
The camera also emphasizes how stifling and cage-like Fletcher and Andrew's world of both contentious conservatory rehearsals and striving for perfection can be. The competitive atmosphere Fletcher creates to keep the members of his jazz band sharp and focused--none of them ever look happy when they're rehearsing or performing--makes you think of all those behind-the-scenes stories from SNL alums about what they view to be Lorne Michaels' distant father side and why they believe he fostered a competitive atmosphere between SNL cast members.
Whiplash also causes you to reflect on how much great art has been created under prickly behavior or cruel and dictatorial conditions, which exemplifies the thought-provoking power of Chazelle's material. The movie makes you ponder whether or not that kind of difficult behavior sours your appreciation for the work that resulted from it, like how the stories of Bill Cosby's off-screen behavior, whether sexual or non-sexual, forever soured Cosby Show fans' enjoyment of the show's reruns, and they're now unable to separate the fictional dad from the accused sexual predator. Carsey-Werner, the TV studio that The Cosby Show helped build into an '80s and '90s Hollywood powerhouse, became known for granting its sitcom stars immense power and creative freedom as their stardom rose, which led to many of them becoming as cruel as they wanted to be on the set (the headlines about the infighting between Cybill Shepherd and the writers on the set of Carsey-Werner's Cybill are better remembered than the show itself). Meanwhile, under slightly less dramatic conditions, Carsey-Werner's hit Cosby Show spinoff A Different World became a funnier, sharper and more accurate show about black college life in its second season, thanks to choreographer and Fame star Debbie Allen, whom Carsey-Werner picked to replace Square Pegs creator Anne Beatts as showrunner. But was the mandatory morning workout that Allen put the Different World cast through, the kind of physical regimen you'd expect dancers like Allen's to experience rather than sitcom actors, really necessary? Over on the hip-hop side, Q-Tip had no problems working with legendary engineer Bob Power, who played a pivotal role in turning the Tribe Called Quest albums The Low End Theory and Midnight Marauders into hip-hop masterpieces and received shout-outs from Quest during "8 Million Stories" and "The Chase Pt. II," but in journalist Brian Coleman's Check the Technique Volume 2: More Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies, the members of Stetsasonic found Power to be too anal for their tastes when they worked together on "Go Stetsa I." Q-Tip's ability to get along with Power was also probably because Q-Tip himself could be prickly too, as Phife Dawg noted about the bumpiest days of his friendship with Q-Tip during Michael Rapaport's Beats, Rhymes & Life documentary about Quest (no wonder Q-Tip didn't care for the film).
But perhaps the most memorable example of great art birthed from the prickliest behavior is director David O. Russell's history of shouting matches with actors, particularly on the sets of Three Kings, I Heart Huckabees and the long-delayed and might-not-be-so-great Nailed, which was renamed Accidental Love after Russell left the troubled film. While stars like George Clooney and James Caan are unwilling to work with Russell again after lousy experiences with him, why are the likes of Mark Wahlberg (who starred in Russell's The Fighter, as well as Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees), Christian Bale (The Fighter, American Hustle), Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) and Jennifer Lawrence (SLP, AH) far more tolerant of Russell? Is it because they're just like Andrew: they're so ambitious about their art that they don't mind putting up with a tyrannical bully for a few months in order to put out quality work, perhaps because one or two of them are bullies themselves?
Again, if brutalizing someone yields great art, does that justify the behavior?
"Overture" from Whiplash can be heard during "AFOS Prime" and "New Cue Revue" on AFOS.