Oscar countdown: Whiplash is a brutal experience

Gold TrophyWhiplash is nominated for Best Movie and Best Adapted Screenplay, and J.K. Simmons is up for Best Supporting Actor for his role as an abusive conductor at prestigious Shaffer Conservatory.

I have to admit that it was painful to sit in the audience and watch the constant abuse hurled onto promising young musicians who no more deserved it than a puppy deserves a beating for barking. I would dismiss such behavior as unrealistic and over the top if it weren’t based loosely on writer/director Damien Chazelle’s experience in a high school band. Although the screenplay was not an autobiographical film, I’m curious to find out just how far his former teacher and bandleader went to inspire the actions portrayed in the movie.

I was squirming in my seat as I watched Simmons embody the loathsome Fletcher, who not only threw a chair at the film’s protagonist, the ambitious drummer Andrew, but adeptly wielded mental cruelty whenever possible.

For instance, early in their relationship, Fletcher asks Andrew about his parents under the guise of trying to explain his natural talent. Caught off-guard, Andrew innocently reveals that his mother left him and his dad when he was quite young. That tidbit later gets flung in his face in a public shaming meant to break him.

Occasionally Andrew catches a glimpse of something more humane in the bandleader, which unfortunately gives him enough hope to stick around, enduring still more abuse at Fletcher’s hands. The audience breathes a sigh of relief when outside forces end the destructive relationship. But Andrew, still wanting to believe that Fletcher has a soul, gives him another chance despite their history and agrees to play in an upcoming performance.

J.K. Simmons’s acting lifts the movie to greater heights. The writing was fine but not, in my opinion, Oscar-worthy.

One scene particularly strained credulity. (Spoiler alert #1) Andrew is due at an out-of-area competition, but his bus breaks down. Undaunted, he rents a car to complete the trip. (Of course my bullshit alarm went off because I know that car rental agencies don’t lease to 19-year-olds.) And of course because he’s speeding and texting (the quintessential modern cautionary tale), his car gets broadsided by a semi. Shortly after impact, we see our bloody hero crawl out from under the wreckage and run the rest of the way to the concert hall. That was when my disbelief ended its suspension and snapped.

whiplashBut the moment that most disturbed me happened at the very end. (Spoiler alert #2) The audience has watched this monster in a position of authority screaming epithets at young impressionable music students for most of the movie, undermining and belittling them at every turn with sometimes tragic consequences. Andrew recovers from yet another manipulative blow to play in front of an audience that can make or break his career.

Now, there may indeed exist music lovers who might actually appreciate extended extemporaneous drumming, but I found myself checking my watch halfway through his performance, however skilled it may have been.

Nevertheless, that wasn’t the downfall of that scene. On top of being subjected to the world’s longest drum solo, I was struck with what I thought was a horrible message—because Andrew worked hard, persisted, suffered endless abuse, and literally bled for his craft, he finally got Fletcher’s faint nod of praise. No doubt there was great satisfaction in proving to himself and to the assembled music critics that his talent could shine through despite Fletcher’s treachery. But ending with Fletcher’s much-sought-after approval, the movie seemed to me to condone his methods. Was that the point?

Hoping to gain insight on the writer/director’s implicit message, I read interviews with him in the L.A. Times and Variety. Chazelle claims that he wanted to make a movie about music that was like Raging Bull, to show the punishing side of an artist’s life and depict how much he is willing to go through to achieve his goal.

Fair enough. But that’s not enough payoff for the audience, who is suffering along with him. For the struggling artist to be a sympathetic character, his aim needs to reach beyond his tormentor’s belated validation; his goal needs to be producing something beautiful or bettering himself.

If, in the final scene, Fletcher had looked beaten at his own game, or if he’d become an alcoholic has-been, if he’d gotten what he deserved—he would not be smiling. I, for one, wanted the vicious music instructor to meet with a dark end in addition to our hero rising victorious.

But maybe that’s just me…

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