I’ll start this review how I start every review, which is: go see Whiplash before you read this post. But this time I say this not only because there be spoilers below, but because it’s one of the best damn movies I’ve seen in long, long time. A long time.
As I begin my thoughts on Whiplash, I am reminded of the Honest Trailers trailer for Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If you’re unfamiliar, Honest Trailers is a fantastic YouTube channel that takes films we love and makes trailers for them that rip them to shreds; pointing out every plot hole and confusing character motivation they can find. Here was the trailer they made to rip Cap 2 to shreds:[youtube http://youtu.be/JvHyk2ESFCI?t=1m29s]
Honest Trailers wanted to rip Cap 2 a new one, but, if they had to be honest, they were finding it difficult because, damn it, it was truly a good flick. Like the people at Honest Trailers, I am one to see only the worst in contemporary films to the point where I go into the theater knowing that, for the most part, I’m not going to enjoy the movie. I am one of the nitpickiest filmgoers of all time, I’ll admit it. But I’ve been sitting here mulling over Whiplash for weeks now and I just have to admit it: this film might be perfect.
Okay, okay, Kale. Let’s pump the brakes for a second—
Whip It, Good!
Whiplash is the story of how Damien Chazelle became Damien Chazelle.
Who knows what happened to this young man and how he was pushed to be so clear, precise and powerful with his filmmaking? Did someone throw something at his head? Did a film instructor once slap him into obsession? I don’t know anything about the guy, other than he directed the flick, but I imagine Whiplash lends us a view into his mind’s eye better than any interview or biography ever could. I couldn’t help thinking when Miles Teller’s character was telling his father how regardless of whether or not Charlie Parker had friends or a drinking/drug problem, we’re all still sitting around today talking about him, that that was what fueled Chazelle through the 19 day shoot of Whiplash, where he no doubt put every ounce of his surely somewhat-broken heart and soul into this picture. Perhaps, when JK Simmons’ character talks about the “you tried your hardest” mentality and the result of the death of jazz, it was really Chazelle explaining to us about all of the “Starbucks” movies out there on the shelves and in the theaters. This movie hit every note in every measure. I kept asking myself if Chazelle was rushing or dragging during my viewing and what I found was that the movie never lost a beat. Tonally, the film touches on every octave and key, dissonance and accord, augmentation and subsidization, in perfect frequency. And if the film’s writing and dialogue were Chazelle’s book of charts, he never leaves it lying around, but always on his person, evidently close to his heart.
Because this film bursts with heart and fire and passion. And rhythm. One of my professors once told me that he believed musicians made for the best filmmakers. That innate sense of tone and rhythm translate a filmmaker’s vision to the big screen. When I realized that my professor was indeed onto something, I noticed that many of the great filmmakers around me and in Hollywood were those that once aspired to be musicians. There’s no doubt in my mind Chazelle comes from a musical background. Jazz, certainly. High school musical education, at the least. There was something magically musical about this film. And I’m not at all talking about the film’s content. I mean, structurally. The rhythm was absolutely precise and exact. It will never happen (because the film isn’t “big” enough), but Whiplash should absolutely win Best Editing at the Oscars this year. This may be the most well-edited film I’ve seen in ages. It should be studied in editing programs around the country and the world for years and decades to come.
All of that comes from the top down. From Chazelle, the film’s band leader. The script was tight, neat and clever. The cinematography was engaging, succinct and tonally appropriate. And the editing betrothed the film’s performances to a steady beat, culminating in a showcase of talents and fresh twists on classic ideas that whip up old-fashioned American cinematic inspiration. What made this film so special was that it was the first time in a many moons of movie-going and Netflix hopping that I sat down and watched a film whose every moment; every frame, every cut, every musical cue and word of dialogue helped add to the overall film. Every character choice made sense. I want to hear what William Goldman and Walter Murch and Sidney Lumet (if he were here) might say about Whiplash. In many ways, it felt like a gritty inspirational film straight out of the late 70s, where powerful performances and strength on the cutting floor dominated the silver screen. J.K. Simmons’ detestable wit and Miles Teller’s stupid courage felt right out of a William Goldman script. The tense editing during the “slap” scene lent itself to the theories of Walter Murch. And the moments of snap were directed with splendid anger in a way that Sidney Lumet would be incredibly proud of.
Performance and editing.[youtube http://youtu.be/JUz9BAOdiWc]
The film was powerful and tense and it invoked all the senses. Its tenacity only matched by its perfection, the same perfection its antagonist begged from his students the entire film.
Whiplash is the story bout how Damien Chazelle became Damien Chazelle. And we will be talking about him at the dinner table for years to come.
If I were going to sit here and nitpick Whiplash at levels of ridiculousness in order to find a reason to make it seem like it’s not a flawless movie, I could delve into the legitimacy of the jazz and the way jazz and jazz education is presented in the film. But I don’t think that’s the point of this film. It’s not out there to make a musical statement through character. Beneath the surface, it is as much about jazz as the original Rocky is about boxing or Black Swan is about ballet or Mr. Holland’s Opus is about music. Whiplash is about being good and doing what it takes. It’s about how being the best at something sometimes means going a little crazy and sacrificing a lot about yourself in order to achieve your goals.[youtube http://youtu.be/hHotBAosCt8?t=2m53s]
The themes in this movie transcend the art world. Jazz is surely at the core and heart of this flick, but the real lessons and questions that Whiplash seeps itself in reach the minds of the viewers who don’t know Gene Krupa from Bernard Purdie. In America, we all live the struggle of finding balance within our lives; balance between what we’re passionate about, what we do for a living, and the well-being, care, and time spent with our loved ones. If we’re lucky, the things we are passionate about and what we do for a living are the same thing. And if they are one in the same, life is a constant struggle of doing your best and putting it the effort to hopefully reach your goals, dreams, and aspirations. But what movies like Whiplash remind us is that in order to be the best at something you are passionate about, it takes time, effort, and sometimes sacrifice that goes beyond what seems normal.
It reminded me a bit of Alec Baldwin’s famous character from Glengarry Glen Ross, where he explains to a group of salesmen that, in the world of sales, how good of a guy you are doesn’t mean anything unless you go out there and close. Or, it reminded me of the now age-old adage from Yoda in Empire Strikes Back that Luke can only do or do not; there is no try—there are only results. No one will ever remember how hard you tried to do something awesome, they will only remember if you did it or not. And now to add to cinema history’s list of tough love characters is J.K. Simmons from Whiplash with quotes like “There are no two words more harmful than ‘good job'” that will make you question if you’re truly doing the best possible in everything that you wish to accomplish.
Whiplash does more than teach about hard work. It makes you wonder what’s worth what. In fact, there are times during the film where we question both characters’ moralities. For Miles Teller’s Andrew, we watch as his obsession jeopardizes his relationships with his father and puts his own life at risk in more than one occasion. We also see it takeover as Andrew goes from a healthy young go-getter in the beginning of the film, to a guy who terminates the relationship with his girlfriend to focus more on drums. We are left to wonder if any of it was worth it. And, on the opposite end, we spend the whole movie questioning J.K. Simmons’ morality. Are abusive methods of motivation immoral, even if they accomplish their end goal? After all, he’s just trying to be responsible for the next Charlie Parker in a world for Taylor Swifts and Nicki Minajes—at any means necessary. With that explanation and some artistry, though, Damien Chazelle manages to create an ounce of empathy for a villainous character of R. Lee Ermey-Full-Metal-Jacket levels of fury. This is also owed to the fact that by watching a film about achieving perfection, we are also witnessing perfection in the film’s storytelling simultaneously.[youtube http://youtu.be/BQ4yd2W50No]
No Easy Way Out
I’ve mentioned this in blogs past: what turns a good film into a great film is coming up with a difficult means to an end, rather than the easy path. Whiplash does just that.
I think Rocky is almost a perfect script. Goddam, that whole flick is just great. I’ve always thought the most interesting and compelling part of that movie is during the “Going the Distance”part; where the film’s score picks up with a triumphant heroic brass blast of goodness not when Rocky throws a punch at Apollo to win it, but rather when Rocky goes down hard. And it is, instead, about Rocky’s struggle to get back up and go the distance than beat Apollo that makes him heroic. Sly and company could easily have made the decision that Rocky shocks the world and knocks out Apollo and the film would have made as much money and probably still would have won an Oscar, but it would not have endured as it has as a great film without that key decision for the character and, what now stands as the entire purpose of the whole flick.[youtube http://youtu.be/HRrIZCKg_2M?t=5m25s]
There were a few times in Whiplash where it could have simply just ended and we would have walked out of there and thought it was a really well done film. They could have ended the film with Andrew telling on Fletcher and Fletcher getting expelled and we would have still walked out of that theater talking about how J.K. Simmons deserves some Oscar buzz. They could have ended that film with Andrew simply being invited on stage by Fletcher and have him play with no confrontation whatsoever, flawlessly, to show how the two got over their differences and we still would have walked out of that theater impatiently waiting for Damien Chazelle’s next movie. They could have done the most 2014 thing of all time and ended the film with Andrew hugging his father in the wings, his father saying “Let’s go home” and Andrew leaving to show us that he just never had it in him in the first place and we still would have walked out of that theater talking about the fantastic editing in this low budget film.
But Damien and company decided to not take the easy way out. I really didn’t know what to expect. Maybe I was being naive, but when Andrew gets on stage to play with the pros in front of everyone at the end of the film and Fletcher goes up to him right before they start to say “You think I’m a f***ing idiot?”I literally yelled out loud “Oh sh*t!” And when Andrew makes a fool of himself and hugs his father in the wings, I thought for sure the film was going to end to show us that Andrew’s obsession got too into his head and it was all for naught. But, instead, when Andrew’s father said “Let’s go home”, I smiled from ear to ear because, for whatever reasons, I knew what Damien knew, what Miles Teller knew, and what J.K. Simmons knew: that in that moment the character of Andrew could either go home with his father and have nothing else left in his life, or he could muster up some silly Butch and Sundance courage and go back out there and play anyway. And Andrew did.
And that scene where he goes out there in a blaze of “Caravan” glory will forever be one of my favorite moments in cinema history.
On to the Next One
I haven’t walked out of a movie theater like that in ages; completely fulfilled, inspired, and wanting to go back inside and watch it over and over and over again. In fact, I can’t remember the last time that happened. Maybe The Dark Knight? But that was for geek reasons, mostly. This was for purely cinephilic reasons. Because Damien Chazelle had titillated every sense in my soul and tapped into senses and emotions in my body I thought had gone the way of the Dodo and Disco. This was a film about jazz music and I walked out of it in a cold sweat. This is the kind of stuff I’ve been looking for in contemporary movies for the last decade or so. It’s the kind of script and movie that’s so good, those of us aspiring to do the same wonder if we should just hang up the skates because when something this good exists, what’s the point?
But then you realize that the whole point of a film like this is to inspire us to go out there and do something amazing. In many ways, Whiplash has hit close to home in that respect, and for that I can’t thank Damien Chazelle enough. And I can’t wait for his next piece.
Whiplash is the story about how Damien Chazelle became Damien Chazelle—and, most certainly, it will inspire the stories of Parkers and Chazelles to come after it.