Whiplash

by Matt J. Popham

There might be a great film lurking in the green-filtered, Fincher-esque shadows of Whiplash’s Shaffer Conservatory, but it never quite makes its way to the screen. Written and directed by aggressively ambitious young filmmaker, Damien Chazelle, the film follows aggressively ambitious young jazz drummer, Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller) and the brutal instruction he suffers (and, to a degree, seeks out) at the hands of his renowned conservatory conductor, Terry Fletcher (a reliably impressive J.K. Simmons). Using tactics that might get him hired at Guantanamo, Fletcher ruthlessly pushes Nieman, who ruthlessly pushes himself while ruthlessly pushing everyone else in his life away, all in the name of achieving “greatness.” Though a bit familiar, it’s a fertile formula for fierce drama, and Chazelle attacks his subject (and his audience) as mercilessly as Fletcher batters Nieman. But in his determination to flatten us, he also ends up flattening his film. Beating the worn and weary (and wholly spurious) drum of genius realized through relentless abuse, Chazelle eschews psychological insight in favor of hollow platitudes and visceral thrills, delivering a punishing, pummeling, exhausting portrait of two megalomaniacs who seem a hell of a lot more interested in themselves than in their art. It’s not just that the narcissistic shallowness of both Nieman and Fletcher – their inability to see music as anything more than a means of self-glorification – makes it a stretch for us to believe (as Chazelle seems to want us to) that they have any sort of greatness lurking within them, but that, for a film about music, Whiplash is almost suffocatingly joyless. Its dubious thematic assertions aside, the film is ultimately undone by its own hyperbolic humorlessness and swaggering sadism, which serve to sap both its dramatic potential and its artistic sincerity. Like the solos of Buddy Rich, whom Chazelle clearly adores, Whiplash clobbers you with its intensity, which makes it diverting enough in the moment; but in reflection, it fades into a blustery monotone.

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