Whiplash – Winner Or Loser?

Whiplash is one of the lowest grossing movies ever to be nominated for Best Picture.

Totally unfair, if you ask me. It is a brilliant picture. It beats many winners over recent years. But hey, that’s my taste.

Perhaps I relate to the film because I once knew my own Fletcher. By today’s standards, my piano teacher’s military methods were downright abusive. Yet, to this day I am grateful he taught me. Without the discipline I learned from him, I would have given up. I might have never learned how to express myself through music.

Whiplash Thematic Question

For me, Whiplash cuts to the core of this dilemma: Should one sustain abuse in order to achieve creative freedom?
I guess each has to answer this one for themselves.

In an early scene, we learn that Andrew knows exactly what he wants. This can’t be said of Nicole (Melissa Benoist), his love interest. She lacks ambition, and doesn’t really care about her future. Andrew shows razor sharp focus. He goes to Shaffer, because it’s the best music school in the country. He has bigger plans, and he’ll be supported by studio band instructor Fletcher.

Or so he believes.

Drill Sergeant Fletcher

Whiplash - JK Simmons

Whiplash contains an ample amount of expletives. Sometimes, it’s simply part of the jazz lingo. Early in the movie a rehearsal session starts with the line “Milk the c***!” In the scene that follows, Fletcher opens the floodgates of foul language.

He shows his true colours for the first time, as he abuses brass player Metz. He makes him believe he was playing out of tune, after which the musician breaks down and is sent away.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle modelled Metz after ‘Gomer Pyle’, from Full Metal Jacket. Kubrick fans may notice that J.K. Simmons’ body language, rhythm and vocabulary in the scene reflect R. Lee Ermey’s performance in the same movie.

Chazelle included this line in the script: “I’m sorry, Tria, Neyman did want to give you a reach-around, he just couldn’t reach.” Reach-around is a direct reference to a line improvised by Lee Ermey, and which Kubrick didn’t get at the time. Ermey explained, and Kubrick decided to keep it. (If you don’t know the term either – I didn’t – look it up, in the Urban Dictionary.)

The Prelude

The mental torturing of Metz foreshadows Andrew’s fate. And this brings us to a classic movie moment…

Great scenes often build up their power from the opposite value, allowing for steadily increasing tension. This movie moment is preceded by a deceptively calm scene. A brooding meet in the hallway outside the rehearsal room.

Fletcher checks in with Andrew, pretending to make sure he is okay. The mood is almost amicable. Fletcher behaves like a caring father would – an aspect of their relationship that is critical to the film. Fletcher understands Andrew so much better than the boy’s own father does. This is why Fletcher is able to abuse his power, and exert control over Andrew. He is a master manipulator.

He goes on to subtly degrade Andrew’s parents. Then, as if he’s caring again – but really to prime Andrew’s ego for what’s to come – he insists “You’re here for a reason”. It works. An unsuspecting Andrew enters the rehearsal room, beaming. Not for long.

Rushing Or Dragging?

Teller and Simmons in Whiplash

J.K. Simmons embodies Fletcher as a walking time bomb. We have seen him go off in a previous scene, so the tension is palpable. When he seemingly enjoys the first bars of Whiplash as the band plays, we don’t believe it.

It takes exactly 37 seconds before all hell breaks loose.

The scene that follows is a mirror of what happened to Metz earlier. Where Metz was tortured about ‘flat’ vs. ‘sharp’; Andrew suffers the rhythm equivalent: ‘rushing’ or ‘dragging’. But Fletcher is not done just yet. Unlike Metz, Andrew is not sent away.

Fletcher has indeed bigger plans with him.

-Karel Segers

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2 thoughts on “Whiplash – Winner Or Loser?”

  1. Whiplash is one of the lowest grossing movies ever to be nominated for Best Picture.

    Yes, but… it was one of the lowest budgeted movies ever to be nominated for Best Picture. With a $33m box office on a $3.3m budget, methinks someone somewhere made some money out of this


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