Body and Soul: Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash”

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We thought Whiplash would be a fun movie to catch before dinner the night of our anniversary.

Wrinkled like a Sphynx cat, in Damien Chazelle’s second feature J.K. Simmons plays Terence Fletcher, a drill sergeant of a conservatory jazz band leader whose single-minded pedagogy, on his quest for the next half-forged Charlie Parker, has left more than a few students in its wake. Opposite Simmons, Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a freshman drummer at the fictional New York school, fresh-faced but determined to achieve greatness. Once upon a time I was something of a jazz drummer myself—not in New York or at a conservatory but at a small college in Maine, and not determined to do much beyond avoiding obvious embarrassment. But still.

It didn’t take us long to realize that Whiplash is not a “fun” movie. In his New Yorker review of Interstellar, Richard Brody remarks on both films’ “self-punishing anti-hedonism.” He’s referring, in part, to the way in which our protagonist, when not studying the technical showboating solos of Buddy Rich, is practicing his double-time swing until his hands bleed, alienating himself from his friends, family, and love interest as he ascends—or descends, depending on your point of view—toward his goal. Fletcher, his guide and antagonist, is present in one way or another the entire time, whether as a dim, mythic specter behind a door or a slap against Andrew’s face, a homophobic slur in his ear, a chair hurled at his head. Together, as a duo, they make the plot happen. But is it music?

05SUBTELLER2-articleLargeBrody says no. In another New Yorker review, this one of Whiplash itself, the critic tears down the film’s “very idea of jazz,” describing it as “a grotesque and ludicrous caricature.” Whereas music, especially jazz, is about the intimacy among performers that sensitive listening and a common goal bring about, Andrew in Whiplash maintains a focused isolation from his band mates, who to him are less collaborators than competitors—for seats in Fletcher’s ensemble or a place in his esteem. “The movie has no music in its soul,” Brody writes, and I have to agree, happily distracted as I was at the oddity of finding such an unlikely and close-to-home figure as a student jazz drummer the subject of cinematic attention. In the end what matters to Andrew is his technical ability to play a spectacular, wowing solo that steals the spotlight—all the audience (and posterity) fixing its gaze on him. Alone.

Then again, does the film actually want to be about jazz? Over dinner, we discussed: at its heart, couldn’t it have been about ballet, or baseball? What did jazz itself have to do with it, really? Well, not much, we decided, and perhaps Whiplash does suffer from some of the cliché that results from privileging a story’s ideas—determination, brutality, manipulation, mastery—over the details and particularities of that story’s world. Again, Brody’s there: “Certainly, the movie isn’t ‘about’ jazz; it’s ‘about’ abuse of power.” But instead of really accepting the film on its own terms and judging it against what it’s set out to accomplish, in a way Brody ends up criticizing it for not having the goals he (and I, sure) would have preferred it to have.

So instead, what really got us talking, as writers ourselves in pursuit of craft, was Whiplash’s vision of artistry: not just Andrew’s abusive relationship with his art, which interested us, but the way in which the film’s narrative logic—with rising action resolving into Andrew’s triumphant climactic performance—proves the positive value of this abusive relationship, which bothered us.

And the questions are very real to us: Must an artist sacrifice absolutely everything for their art? Can there really be no healthy balance between our work and our lives (and, of course, our jobs)? If we really want to “make it” as writers, we wondered as we toasted our third year as a couple, are we only getting in each other’s way?

Whiplash-Damien-Chazelle

According to Whiplash, yes. Partway through the movie Andrew breaks up with his girlfriend to make more time for his drumming and to prevent the two of them from coming to resent each other. In the scene, he’s a complete ass, offering his deadpan, unregretful confirmation that yes, he finds his devotion to his grand destiny incompatible with her normal eighteen-year-old uncertainty about her future. From there, the film could bring Andrew back down to earth, leaving him with the consolation prize of perspective, but instead it backs him up, endorsing his clichéd and simplistic, immature ideal of greatness. By the end of the film, the protagonist’s relationship with his craft, in all its abusive habits, has been glorified. He can’t date, he pushes away his family, he has no friends—his connection to the drums is in other words exclusive, but not only that. It’s also all-or-nothing, up-and-down: either he’s elated or he’s dejected, either he’s playing a big solo or his kit is boxed up. And it’s a violent relationship. Blood appears repeatedly, fetishistically, throughout the film. At one point, having crashed his car, Andrew literally crawls back to the drums, his face gashed red.

In the end Andrew may get what he wants. Fletcher’s approval, the spotlight. But who—actually caught in the harsh, demanding, rewarding matrix of art and life—wants what Andrew gets? Body but no soul.

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