Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
Finally saw Whiplash, last year’s little-engine-that-could (and did—four Oscars). Can’t say I’m surprised at all that it was so well-received by critics and audiences alike—it’s a visceral, exciting film, one that, given its mundane subject matter, takes you by surprise with its intensity. An artificial, superimposed intensity, sure (a realistic film about getting good at drums would be more the vibe of Jeanne Dielman, but louder) but an intensity that is undeniably effective. At certain moments, I was quite literally on the edge of my seat.
My praise for the film ends there though, other than to say that J.K. Simmons delivers a phenomenal performance, his career best. And, there’s a few genuinely funny parts when you least expect them. In general though, the film is a shallow one. More specifically, it’s two-dimensional—so two-dimensional it’s damn near cel-based.
What I’m saying is, it’s cartoonish. It’s basically live-action anime. And had it been anime, I probably would’ve liked it more, because it’d at least have been unabashed about it, rather than try to hide its true colors underneath an Oscar-bait patina.
If you’re not sure what I’m talking about with this whole anime thing, what I mean is, anime has a history of taking the humdrum of getting good at a something and elevating it to extremely dramatic heights, full of overbearing teachers and determined young people that want to be the greatest of all time. For example: Hikaru No Go, Prince of Tennis, Dan Doh, Fighting Spirit, Slam Dunk, the list goes on—basically, name a sport or a game, and there’s an anime about it that pitches the stakes up to the rafters.
Whiplash is so anime that I’m honestly surprised there’s no Andrew/Fletcher erotic fan fiction on the internet. (Although, for all I know there is—I didn’t really dig for it beyond a cursory Google search.) Whiplash is so anime that you damn near expect Andrew to say under his breath, “Notice me, Senpai”. Whiplash is so anime that I can’t believe John D’Amico has seen it. Alright, you get the point.
It doesn’t surprise me at all to learn that Damien Chazelle is thirty years old. This is a man who played Pokemon when it came out, and wanted to be the very best (no one ever was / to catch them is my real test / to train them is my cause). This is a man who saw giant sweat bubbles drip off characters’ heads and decided, subconsciously, that he wanted to approximate that with live-action one day. Even his concept of wounds seems anime-influenced—since when do people play better with their hands ripped up and taped? Oh—until they suddenly don’t! And then, until they suddenly do again, all of this of course depending on what fits the narrative at the moment.
The way that Whiplash approaches the accumulation of skill is probably the most eye-rolling thing about it. Both Andrew and his teacher Fletcher have a concept of being able to do something that it is so far from reality that you wonder if Chazelle has ever even met a musician in his life. For instance, people can’t suddenly play perfectly at 400 BPM after trying, non-stop, for a whole day, while being yelled at to do so. If that were true, we should convert Guantanamo Bay into a music school—in a couple years, we’d have the greatest musicians who ever lived.
Had this film went the Scott Pilgrim route, and was a little tongue-in-cheek about everything, I would’ve let its fast-and-loose playing with reality slide. (By the way, that Charlie Parker story told several times in the film is totally false.) As it stands, it’s a self-important yet engrossing mess that is worth seeing, but isn’t worth taking any more seriously than Grand Piano, a turd Chazelle wrote that bastardizes Classical just as bad he bastardizes Jazz here.
3 out of 5 Codys.
For an exciting drum film that is much better in all aspects, I’d recommend the Roger Ebert and Armond White favorite Drumline.
For an exciting drum YouTube video by a Smug Film contributor, I’d recommend the always classic Alex’s Drum Time.