Music movies are almost inevitably fun. Even bad music movies are often enjoyable. Even bad music movies featuring Richard Dreyfuss. (I liked “The Competition” and dutifully sniffled through the end of “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” ) “Pitch Perfect” is at best an average comedy, but the music kicks it up onto a higher plane. (There is, improbably, a “Pitch Perfect 2″ on the way, with a cameo by some of the Packers.) “Whiplash,” a new movie about the uphill climb of a jazz drummer might just be the most purely exciting music movie I’ve ever seen.
Apprenticeship movies are also a beloved American tradition. Everybody knows who Mr. Miyagi is. At least once a month for the rest of your life, somebody will mention Yoda. The apprenticeship in “Whiplash” does not resemble those relationships. The closest I can come to a template is the dynamic between Zack Mayo and Sgt. Emil Foley in “An Officer and a Gentleman.” It’s that notion of: if I don’t destroy you, if you survive me, you will be fit for service. There is also the peculiar linkage between two mentors who think the best way to get to a guy is to call him a queer or a faggot. This plays a lot less comfortably in 2014 than it did in 1982. We ultimately buy into Sgt. Foley’s aim. He is the father figure Zack needs, and his methods, hard as they are to watch, are all about keeping people alive.
What makes “Whiplash” so fascinating is the hazy ambiguity of its “mentor,” — if you can even call him that — Terence Fletcher, a conservatory band leader played by J.K. Simmons. Fletcher is far more malevolent than Foley. He’s a monster. But does he have some Promethean gift to bestow upon the young man who survives his trial by fire? Would the gift be worth the ordeal that preceded it? And, most intriguingly, would “victory” amount to joining Darth Fletcher on a soulless dark side of virtuosity?
Absolutely, go see this movie. Now. You’ll have a blast. I’m going to give you a bunch of reasons to like it. But I also — God forgive me — want to tell you a few things that strike me as deeply wrong with it.
OK, good stuff: The performances of Miles Teller as the young drummer and of Simmons (who, I agree, should be entitled to some happy moments during awards season).This is a two-character movie. Any movie in which Paul Reiser is the third most important character is by definition a two-character movie. Truly, director Damien Chazelle cares only about the two guys and can barely be bothered to paint anyone else into the background. But it works. Also, Chazelle has a gift for filming the music scenes. They look like the very best training and ring scenes from “Rocky.” They’re that exciting. And then there’s the music. I mean, you really can’t lose, having terrific ensembles playing fabulous jazz. “Whiplash” is one big sweet crispy shiny jazz apple.
Now let me tell you about the worms
1. The role of Fletcher is overwritten and overwrought. It’s not just that he calls everybody a faggot, Patton-slaps Andrew, and tells one young musician, “I hope you can play faster than when you’re giving your boyfriend a hand job.” It’s not just that he conducts a Stasi style interrogation about which of his musicians has not properly tuned his instrument, eventually reduces one chubby trombonist to tears, ridicules the guy for being fat, throws him out of the ensemble and then, after he leave, dryly announces that another trombonist was the one out of tune but the fat guy “didn’t know that, which is just as bad.” I could buy all that (although in 2014, you really can’t keep your conservatory job very long if you’re that kind of homophobe). But to believe in Fletcher, you have to believe that, in the first 24 hours of knowing his young drummer Andrew, he teases some deeply personal family information out of him and immediately uses it to taunt him in front of 15 of his peers. Does any bandleader really say, “I guess mommy walked out on daddy when she realized he wasn’t the next Herman Melville” on the first day of practice? Still, it works. I was riveted, even as a tiny little voice said inside me, “no, probably not.” Simmons saves Fletcher from caricature status. He could have been written as diabolical in a more subtle way.
2. The movie seems a little muddled about jazz itself. We are told repeatedly that Charlie Parker was tipped into greatness when Jo Jones nearly decapitated him with a hurled cymbal. Not only is this apparently false, but it also misses the point of Charlie Parker. The point of Bird is not that he subsumed himself to some tyrannical and metronomic understanding of music, but that he didn’t. He did the opposite. The critical scene in the movie is a Walpurgisnacht that really boils down to whether or not Andrew the drummer can push himself to play fast enough. Not well enough. Fast enough. Whether, like Harold Abrahams in “Chariots of Fire,” he can squeeze one tenth of a second out of himself. I also wonder whether this film is generally true to the spirit of jazz. I’m not a big jazz expert, but I’ve worked with some jazz musicians and known some others pretty well. No question: they operate under a very simple dichotomy. Either you can play or you can’t. If you can’t, nobody’s going to make excuses for you. But once you get beyond that hurdle, they seem overwhelmingly like easygoing, friendly and (frequently) almost naive people. There are exceptions. There’s Buddy Rich, a constant apostrophic presence in this movie. But Rich was reportedly all bark and no bite. He might have yelled at a fat trombonist, but he wouldn’t have fired him — certainly not for being out of tune at one practice. And then there’s Miles. But Miles was sui generis, right? You can’t use Miles to explain any other earthly phenomenon. I guess Mingus was kind of a beast. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I’ll be interested to see whether jazz people recognize their world in the darkness of this movie.
3.. Shooting the musical scenes, Chazelle moves like a seal through the water. Shooting non-musical human interactions, he’s more like a seal on dry land. There is, in particular, a dinner party scene that plays all wrong, rhythmically and in very other way. And what’s Chris Mulkey doing there?
But this movie took real guts and vision. One of its central questions is whether either of its protagonists deserves our sympathy. It maintains that unsparing ambiguity all the way through. Andrew isn’t much more likable than Fletcher. But he is, in some other way, deserving. “Whiplash” paints virtuosity in an unforgiving light. What does it take to make a Mingus and what gets lost in the wash?