6 Deep Thoughts About 'Whiplash'
From Charlie Parker to bloody drums to the most codependent movie relationship of the year, let's dig in.
At the heart of Whiplash is a story about a very messed up codependent relationship. Dubbed "Full Metal Julliard" at its Sundance premiere, the movie finds Miles Teller trying to rise through the ranks at a prestigious music school under the tutelage of a sadistic teacher played by current Oscar front runner J.K. Simmons. Writer and director Damien Chazelle drew heavily from his own experience as a drummer in making the movie, right down to the dominating teacher.
Whiplash is one of those movies where it sounds like it's going to be boring, but it turns out to be electrifying. You can't look away. And you can't help but put yourself into the movie, wishing you could make decisions for this kid who lets his whole life be dominated by this one maniac. It was the kind of movie that left a lot for us to think about, so let's dive into some of those thoughts.
1. That Charlie Parker Story Is All Wrong
At different times in the movie both Terence Fletcher and Andrew Neiman recount the story of drummer and bandleader "Papa" Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at 16-year-old Charlie Parker's head, "nearly decapitating him." The humiliation of the incident inspired Parker to practice harder than ever and return triumphant. The story is central to explaining both Fletcher's and Andrew's motivations, but it's all wrong. Jones didn't throw the cymbal at Parker's head. He threw it at Parker's feet, like a gong playing him off. It is true that the incident inspired Parker to head back to the practice room and hone his craft, but the key thing here is that the older bandleader never physically endangered the young Parker. So what gives?
The simplest explanation is that writer and director Damien Chazelle tweaked the story to fit his purposes. He needed the story to better fit what was happening in the film, so he put Parker in harm's way. I wish this was a little different. I wish Andrew told it one way at the beginning of the movie only to encounter, and adopt, Fletcher's version later. This would mean that Fletcher either tweaked or misunderstood the story, not Chazelle, giving deeper meaning to the teacher's twisted methodology, and would also underline the power he has over Andrew.
2. Andrew Genuinely Loves Music, And Fletcher Really Wants to Teach
Andrew: Whiplash forces us to examine Andrew's motivations. Does he really care about the music? Or is he driven to be the best for the sake of being the best? Or does he care more about his teacher's approval than he ever did about the music? I think it's a mix of all those, but I'm convinced Andrew really does love the music. The old home movies, the posters on the wall, the way he's powerless to resist staying up all night and listening to Buddy Rich over and over and over — this is a kid who LOVES music, and everything else started there. No matter how ugly things get, and no matter how much Andrew is twisted by ambition, it all started with something pure and beautiful — with a boy who loved music.
Fletcher: At a certain point in Whiplash I became convinced Fletcher didn't actually care about the music or teaching nearly as much as he cared about terrorizing his students. Maybe he’s a pure sadist and music instruction is just his particular means of fulfilling the need to inflict pain. I became doubly convinced of this the moment he sabotaged Andrew at Lincoln Center, but just a few minutes later it became clear I was wrong.
The moment Andrew’s solo really takes off at the end of “Caravan,” Fletcher’s eyes brighten. It looks like he considers the possibility of stopping Andrew before he decides that what’s happening is inspired. He’s witnessing the kind of greatness he pined for while having a drink with Andrew at the bar. This isn’t just a masterful solo, it’s a living validation of Fletcher's goals and methods. Andrew is brilliant, and it’s all thanks to him. Just two scenes earlier he told Andrew, "I never had a Charlie Parker, but I tried." Now he has his Charlier Parker. This moment will live in Fletcher's memory for the rest of his life as proof he was always right and all the complainers were just pansies.
3. Is Fletcher in Denial About Sean Casey, or Is He Covering His Ass?
When Fletcher gets the news about Sean Casey, he’s visibly distraught, showing a rare moment of vulnerability when he retreats to his office to hold his head in his hands. The next day he tells his class his former student died in a car accident and plays them some of Casey’s music. We later learn Casey hanged himself, and his family holds Fletcher at least somewhat responsible. When Andrew catches up with Fletcher, the music teacher brings up Casey, but still doesn't admit it was a suicide. Andrew knows he's hiding it at this point, but still decides to join Fletcher on stage. What does he think is going through Fletcher's mind? What is going through Fletcher's mind? Is he in full-on denial, unwilling to admit he may have had a hand in a student's suicide? Or is he lying to keep himself from looking bad?
4. Buddy Rich Was a Bad Influence on Them Both
Andrew worships jazz legend Buddy Rich in the movie. He's got the posters, the music, the style — the guy is his hero. And he's probably Fletcher's hero too, but for different reasons. Rich was an amazing drummer. Watch the first video below to see how fast he moves. It literally looks like magic and reminds us all that as much as Miles Teller trained and as convincing as the movie was, he's an actor, not some superhuman drummer like Rich.
Then click play on the second video, but be warned, the language is very NSFW. That's Rich on one of his infamous "Bus Tapes" recordings in which he terrorizes his band. The drummer had a notorious temper and was known for being a real bastard to fellow musicians. Once he was out in the spotlight he did nothing but sing his band's praises, but behind closed doors he could be a monster. It's impossible to listen to those recordings without comparing them to Fletcher's many ill-tempered rants in the movie. (Sidenote: Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld are huge fans of the "Bus Tapes," and worked quotes from them into Seinfeld after sharing the bootlegs.)
It's pretty clear how that could be a bad influence on Fletcher, but it also would have been terrible for Andrew, who's just as well versed in jazz lore and would have known the stories about Rich. Seeing through a haze of hero worship, Andrew probably justified Fletcher's abuse in his mind, telling himself it was no different than the way Buddy Rich did things. It made him susceptible to Fletcher's abuse, and it probably did the same for the rest of the band. They've heard the stories. They figure this just comes with the territory when you're trying to be the best.
5. No One Bleeds Like That on the Drums
In an excellent fact-checking piece from Vulture, Julliard's Mark Sherman gives an insider's take on what is and isn't real about Whiplash's music school. He wants to assuage people's fears after seeing the movie. First, he says, if teachers acted like that at Julliard, they'd be fired. Second, drummers don't bleed all over their kits when they practice hard. "That's unrealistic," he says. "People don't draw blood like that, playing music. It just doesn't happen, and if you do, you're holding the sticks wrong. You're screwed up technically if you're drawing blood. I've never seen anyone draw blood."
6. Andrew Will Never Escape Fletcher
In Whiplash's final scene, Fletcher looks into Andrew's eyes and finally, silently, probably fleetingly, acknowledges the young drummer's brilliance. After being suckered by his petty, vengeful, manipulative teacher, Andrew is in the throes of a drum solo to end all drum solos, and Fletcher cannot help but be in awe of his abilities.
It's satisfying because Andrew's drumming has finally reached a place where it can exist and even flourish in his teacher's absence. He doesn't need the guy anymore. If Andrew decides at the end of this solo that Fletcher's opinion will never mean anything to him ever again, he'll probably go on to be a very successful musician. If this were a worse movie, that's the ending we'd get, but Whiplash is better than that. Instead, at the end of it, we realize Andrew is happier about Fletcher's approval than about his own achievement. The scene's magic trick is making us, the audience, feel that satisfaction at Fletcher's reaction, too. As an audience it only takes a moment for us to realize how perverse that is, but Andrew will probably never have that realization — or if he does, it will likely be catastrophic.
Andrew is not destined to walk away from Fletcher. No, this is the beginning of a long and terrible relationship that could very well find Andrew walking in the footsteps of the movie's cautionary tale, the suicidal "Sean Casey." He thinks he needs Fletcher, and Fletcher wants him, and together they're as destructive and malformed and perfectly matched as Batman and the Joker — enemies who can't live without each other.