Thanksgiving week arthouse binge part 3: Whiplash

Obviously jazz drumming is extremely difficult, nuanced work, but Whiplash never establishes that beyond loud noises the characters make sometimes. It takes more than yelling and grunting to make something seem as difficult as the drumming needs to be for the movie to work. Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

Whiplash, a movie about how hard drumming is, is so bad it actually makes drumming look kind of easy.

Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) plays an aspiring jazz drummer who wants to be the very best, like no one ever was. Neiman gets into Shaffer Conservatory, hailed in the film as the best music school in the U.S., and is quickly admitted into the top jazz band conducted by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who is the kind of teacher that only got the job to justify his own anal-retention, cruelty and severe bi-polar tendencies. The kind of guy who genuinely laments the decline of corporal punishment. The movie is about Fletcher’s castigation of Neiman and Neiman’s increasingly insane attempts to earn his approval.

Whiplash has admirable focus, which is another way of saying it has tunnel vision. Jazz drumming is the most important thing in the world to Neiman, and being a huge, irredeemable ass to his students is the most important thing in the world to Fletcher. But there is no entry point for anyone who doesn’t share those interests. There is only this pair of awful, one-dimensional characters butting heads over auditory details few in the audience will even begin to understand.

The movie doesn’t even do a good job of showing how much effort they’re putting into these crafts they care about so much. Neiman’s hands bleed a lot and Teller makes some sex faces while appearing to hold his breath during long stretches of drumming, and that’s the only way you can tell he’s having a hard time. Fletcher berates his students for the slightest musical mistake, but all I hear is jazz. The old school band adage that all the audience hears is music is very much at play here — in a bad way.

Whiplash aspires to be a movie about striving for perfection and the drive required to be the very very best, but it isn’t. Too much of this theme is communicated purely through montage and detail shots of bloodied hands and drum kits and too few shots establishing how they got so bloody. Neiman picks up and drops a girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) for his work, which is kind of resonant, but this is also poorly fleshed out as their relationship isn’t established before it’s over.

This movie uses its only female character, Nicole (Melissa Benoist) as a plot device to show how much Neiman cares about drumming. This movie is sexist.

Where the rubber meets the road, Whiplash is a Kung Fu movie that substitutes drumming for martial arts, and it also doesn’t work as an action movie because action needs to be secondary to the characters. If you don’t care about the people doing the fighting, you don’t care about the fight. This is where Whiplash fails miserably. They’ve got a ton of drummer detail shots and some really long drumming sequences, but the only thing I want to watch these characters do is jump off a bridge.

It’s not even fun to watch Simmonds sarcastically thrash his students — his insults aren’t funny, they’re just sexist.

Perhaps this movie will be meaningful to jazz students or people who have had an abusive teacher, but Whiplash does such a poor job of communicating its main themes that it only works for those niche audiences.

Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, journalism and film student at the University of North Texas and news editor for the NT Daily. Today I am your champion, today I’ve won your hearts, but I know the game, you’ll forget my name, I won’t be here in another year if I don’t stay on the charts. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter when I can be bothered to make one, and shoot questions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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