Whiplash (USA, 2014)

11180104_oriDirected by: Damien Chazelle. Getting caught up on last year’s Oscars, I decided that instead of avoiding this film like I had been doing, I might as well see the stupid thing. It looked like probably just another bullshit Hollywood drama about a teacher pushing a student to his limits in order for him to achieve greatness, both of them winning redemption (again with the redemption, ugh), and showcasing the brilliant acting of the two leads. And I was right. But on the other hand, there’s not a lot of movies made about jazz drumming, and that alone made it kind of an interesting choice I thought. So yes, the acting was great, but let’s leave that aside, because it’s been well documented, and J.K. Simmons got the damn Oscar, so enough with the acting. As for the rest of it, it’s another in a long line of familiar Hollywood tropes—not the inspirational teacher story, because it really isn’t, but the beleaguered hero pushing himself to unhealthy extremes to earn redemption (redemption about what? over what? I swear to God redemption is used as a character motivator so many times in Hollywood, the word loses all fucking meaning). This is The Wrestler, this is The Fighter, this is Birdman, this is Rocky, but it’s more pessimistic. The age of the protagonist and the setting of the high-stakes, emotionally abusive, depression-inducing world of competitive New York post-secondary arts institutions make this film echo a bit with the recent Oscar bait film Black Swan. In both films, the protagonist achieves their goal, immersing themselves in the toxic world that antagonizes them throughout the whole movie, but they sacrifice something to get it, giving up a part of their soul (or their life itself) in order to achieve that greatness that they’ve been struggling the whole movie to get. This film’s ending (setting aside a few logistical question marks that beg for a suspension of disbelief) is a pretty smart ending: on the surface, a satisfying ending because it resolves the conflict (the stern, disapproving, hateful teacher cracks a smile of approval at his student), but dissatisfying because this boy has chosen the asshole teacher and the life of uncaring, self-obsessed careerist perfectionism over his real father and the domestic world of family and relationships (having already ruined the one potential romance already). So the film is already lightyears smarter and more subversive than most Hollywood fare in that it fails to allow a straightforward, dumb resolution. Even the dumbest audience member would be forced to chew on it, to furrow their brown and think about how they feel about what they just saw. Now, of course, it’s a movie about jazz drumming—as insulated and consequence-less a context I can think of—but regardless. The technical stuff was a bit jarring: the synching of the pre-recordings to the miming of the “live” performances was good enough for the average viewer, but glaring to anyone with a music mindset (and if you’re making a movie about music, that’s presumably a part of your demographic). It wasn’t terrible, mind, but if you’re not going to do it dead-on, I’m not sure why you would bother. But I mean, this movie was written and directed by a former jazz drummer, and if he can’t be bothered, I don’t hold much hope for the rest of Hollywood. So yes, this movie is fantastically acted, and overall very well done (and for very little budget, which I like), and it has an unconventional, mildly subversive ending. But for all that, I’m not sure how great this movie is. It’s good, certainly, even very good, but not great. But I can confidently say that it’s my favourite movie about jazz drumming that I’ve ever seen.

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4 responses to “Whiplash (USA, 2014)

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  4. Pingback: La La Land (USA, 2016) | Offhand Reviews·

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