The two central theses of this breathless film are so old-school they’re radical. Great art is often born of abuse. And if you have a talent, you should be prepared to tolerate abuse. Tolerate it until you bleed, sweat and weep, quite literally; until you’re a completely changed person, and until your talent is honed into such an asset that it can change and inspire countless people.
Whiplash makes a complex but convincing case for these theses. We have to thank the excellent Miles Teller, directed very well by Damien Chazelle (himself a drummer), for creating a protagonist who is not entirely likeable. He dumps his girlfriend in a brutal if endearingly honest way, and can be bullish and arrogant. This film is inspirational in its way, but is not polite or respectful. It bulldozes liberal shibboleths that insist that youngsters should be carefully nurtured and treated as precious gems, and roars that young ‘gems’ need to be not polished but sandpapered – ideally with a healthy dose of emotional and physical abuse.
This movie is, to an extent, a redefinition of the talented-youngster-finds-a-mentor-who-brings-out-the-youngster’s-genius narrative; ironically, it’s so successful, and so invigorating, that it will have to stand alone. Imitators will inevitably fall flat. Still, Whiplash does indulge in some gratuities. It is perhaps too profane, as if Terence Winter had attempted to write an inspirational sports movie; and some of the insults, intended to be witty, come across as wordy and unnecessary, even within the sphere of abuse that is such a crucial part of the film. One of its central ideas is a little misleading, anyway: genius does need practice, but it isn’t fair to suggest that practice, ultra-discipline and abuse make genius. Not to mention the film’s embellishment of the story of how Charlie Parker became Bird.
Technically and structurally, though, the film is a tour-de-force. The editing lives up to the film’s name, the direction is assured, and the film’s sense of style is never placed above the general dedication to the creation of art, and to exploring the crucible of volatility whence great art comes. The music scenes themselves are perfectly paced, and are long enough for us to feel like we’re on a rollercoaster of rhythm and emotion. The musical supervisors, consultants and mixers deserve mentioning by name, particularly Justin Hurwitz, Andy Ross, Anna Granucci, and Lauren Hadaway. Much credit to them: the music sounds fantastic, and you could happily watch Miles Teller bash his drums for a long, long time. The Spaniards call the drums la baterie; here’s why.