“I can’t sit down long enough to absorb any kind of learning.”
Buddy Rich told a great story. A child prodigy and a brilliant drummer, he knew the value of myth. No matter how he tells it, he absorbed everything. And as many times as he said he didn’t practice or didn’t go to music school, he learned from everyone, repeatedly paying homage to his many influences, the musicians who came before him, who were his contemporaries, who were on their way up after him. Buddy Rich lived jazz as determinedly as he played it.
Buddy Rich shows up early in Whiplash, the sign of everything young drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) wants to be. Rich appears in posters, in old TV footage, in the MP3s Andrew consumes avidly, nodding his head, bumping his knees, moving his wrists in rhythm. It might matter that Andrew is white, like Buddy Rich, but the film doesn’t attend to that story. Instead it keeps focused on another story, one in which white artists are obsessed with each other. While Andrew is gripped by Rich, Andrew’s instructor, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), is in turn consumed by Andrew. This makes for an especially knotty threeway relationship, wound around legacy and ambition, competition and consumption.
As Damien Chazelle’s movie stages it, this relationship is both hackneyed and innovative, a saga of fathers and sons and bullies and victims, but also a gorgeous ode to drumming, as art, as mastery and invention, as utterly thrilling experience. Certainly, Buddy Rich is a vivid model here, a showman of the highest order, embodying a familiar tension between self-performance and self-expression. And the film makes the most of that tension, pressing you close to Andrew’s sensations, the camera tight up against the edge of the snare as he hits it again and again, peering at him from around the crash, so the cymbal takes up most of the frame, the kid’s face contorted as he tries, alone in his room, to make the speed, the sound, and, especially, the accuracy he believes he needs.
He believes this because he’s studied Buddy Rich and also, because his teacher tells him so. As Fletcher appears to set trap after trap, to taunt and intimidate and twist his student’s desire, he seems the ultimate bad teacher, even as he describes himself otherwise, as the one man who might make the next Bird, imagining himself a version of Jo Jones who — legend has it — threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker and so drove him to greatness. Andrew listens to this story, and might even see himself in it. The story is for you more than him, however, as it leads to you to wonder about your first impression of Fletcher as a myopic despot, so sure of his own vision that he can’t imagine another even exists.
Whiplash allows that Fletcher might mean well, that he feels remorse over mistakes he might have made. But it also focuses, again and again, on the brutality of his methods, the classroom full of cowering young men (all men), the averted glances, the uncertainty of their own abilities and judgments, the abject fear. Does it matter that Andrew absorbs this lesson and sees the model as himself, that he emotionally abuses a painfully nice would-be girlfriend (Melissa Benoist), that he sees in his own potential greatness a way to escape the banality of his family, where his square-jawed brother is heaped with high praise for playing football and his rumply father (Paul Reiser) seems not to understand that jazz is the epitome of American achievement? While such plot clichés underline Andrew’s need to get out, they make him a cliché too.
As the stakes rise and the action turns preposterous, the movie appears to be locked in with Andrew’s sense of urgency, his desperation and his Fletcher-like inability to see outside his own tunnel. But then, sometimes, Whiplash lets go of the plot and lets you forget that Fletcher has apparently mounting issues or Andrew is learning important life lessons, that no JVC or other Jazz Festival would ever let a kid drummer on stage who has not rehearsed with the band, no matter who’s conducting. These are mighty distractions, to be sure, and you need to do your own work to get past them.
But without the narrative or the characterizations, with the drumming, Whiplash is its own kind of brilliant, and not just because the drum solos are cool. However you respond to the music, composed by Chazelle’s Harvard roommate Justin Hurwitz, the visual accompaniment is exhilarating. Yes, you see a few too many close-ups of Andrew’s bandaged fingers or blood on his snare drum, but you also see the drum kit. Long takes or short, tight or mobile frames, it seems almost to breathe, to pulse and push, a place and a prop and a consciousness all at the same time. That kit, so precisely shot and so jazz too, is the most exciting story in Whiplash.