Whiplash is a critically acclaimed movie with an ending which will leave you with what can be best described as case of mental blue-balls.
by D R Harward, staff writer
This film grabs you by the shirt collar and almost forces you to consider the cost of greatness, not that price paid by the exceptional few who do ultimately achieve it; but instead ,that price paid by the faceless legions of those who don’t succeed; those whom Hollywood has chewed-up and then swallowed whole.
Whiplash is an emotionally-intense sketch of an encounter between; a music teacher who obsessively, and sometimes violently, agitates his students at a prestigious music school and a bumptious young drummer who pushes himself until his fingers bleed only to become another casualty of his mentor’s steadfast quest to incite greatness. Stepping outside the norm, writer-director Damien Chazelle shines a spotlight on a small yet significant, but almost sacred, subset of modern society, those who believe that they can achieve greatness by proxy—teachers, particularly coaches.
“Juno’s dad, the dark side,” is how award-winning actor J.K. Simmons describes his character, Professor Fletcher, a music teacher who emphasizes product-over-process in his zealous quest to awaken the perfection in others. Here the maniacal Fletcher whose abrupt, reactionary manner provides a vivid example of the ruthlessness that is sometimes employed in the name of fame.
Director Chazelle introduces us to a music-school pedagogue, who controls the varsity jazz ensemble with a sharp tongue and an iron fist A gifted musician who never-quite-made-it, Fletcher seeks greatness in others by employing his interpretation of the Roman maxim; adversity reveals genius, prosperity conceals it. The hardships the students endure, through which Fletcher seeks to discover the next Charlie Parker, are emotional and physical abuses which drive at least one of his students to end his music career–permanently.
Fletcher’s sadistic nature is offset, almost delicately, by his effortless ability to play the caring mentor; a role which he uses to manipulate his victims and to convince others of the merits to his approach.
The story evolves into a one-sided battle of wills between Fletcher, who steadfastly tries to evolve his students and Andrew who does his best, which is never quite enough. The story culminates in a gripping scene in which Andrew physically assaults the teacher, on-stage, at an off-campus competitive music event. For the record, Andrew had good reason to attack Fletcher–but you’ll have to watch the film to find out what that is. As would be expected, Andrew is kicked-out of school despite his father’s outrage at the treatment that his son has endured by the hand of Fletcher. The father responds by joining with other parents in a lawsuit against the school, which ultimately causes Fletcher to lose his job.
Meanwhile, Andrew also becomes familiar with misfortune, which leaves him listless and depressed; to such an extent that he completely abandons the pursuit of a career in music—to which, when we first met him he had been so deeply devoted.
About a year passes and we find Andrew as he stumbles upon Fletcher, who had been playing a gig with a jazz trio at a seedy downtown bar. Andrew had slipped inside for a moment and ended up having a drink with his former professor, who confides with Andrew that some unknown kid had got him fired.
Andrew passes over the opportunity that he is being given to confess and is surprised when Fletcher requests that he join his band at the opening of the JVC Jazz Festival in two weeks time. Andrew, having gone cold-turkey from the drums for over a year understandably hesitates, but eventually allows Fletcher to talk him into sharing the stage with him–one last time.
At the bar, Andrew had been told that they would be playing songs that he’d rehearsed at school. However, unbeknownst to Andrew, Fletcher was keenly aware of Andrew’s role in his dismissal and is planning to get revenge. At the show, band-leader Fletcher introduces a completely unknown piece for the opening number, one which Andrew does not know and does nor have the sheet music for.
To Fletchers’ delight, Andrew becomes flustered and commits a cardinal sin in show-business; he walks off stage– mid-song. Backstage he sees his father with an ‘I told you so’ expression written across his face, and then as the number ends—Andrew suddenly turns around and returns to the stage!
While Fletcher is still introducing the next song; Andrew begins playing solo, taking musical control. He segues into the song that had been Fletcher’s pièce de résistance back in school, which is soon picked up by the band and performed flawlessly.
As the song ends, the band stops playing and the audience applauds, but the beat goes on as Andrew launches into an elaborate John Bonham (Led Zeppelin)-style drum solo. The upstaged Fletcher is at first stunned, but soon finds a way to appear to be conducting the impromptu drum solo. Then suddenly–full stop—movie ends and the credits roll.
Huh? Wait a minute, what kind of ending is that?
Our hero practices till his fingers bleed, risks life and limb to be a part of the varsity band, only to be dismissed without a second thought or concern by Fletcher. Andrew slides into a tail-spin, abstaining from music for a year; then by chance stumbles into an opportunity to play a single gig (which I would bet he doesn’t even expect to get paid for).
As the fill-in for an already contracted drummer, at the very worst Andrews faux pas would get him blacklisted from playing at future JVC Festivals. Considering the fact that he had already given up on the music business, being blacklisted from the festival circuit would likely not matter very much to him. The story stops with Andrew having once again been suckered and humiliated by Fletcher, leaving the music school drop-out with a bruised ego and a non-reputation which is only slightly worse for wear.
On the other hand, Fletcher’s actions leading up to and including those in the finale are as unlikely as they are unfathomable. From the point of view of Fletcher, several aspects of the final scenes do not make sense. Until the closing scenes, Fletcher has been presented as a socially functional maniac who has been able to maintain his position at a prestigious music academy for at least six years. Within a year of being fired he is somehow able to land a gig opening the JVC Jazz Festival, a feat that takes connections and an impeccable reputation.
Yet, here we are expected to believe that Fletcher is willing to sacrifice his livelihood to halfheartedly get revenge on a punk student who testified against him, both unlikely and unbelievable. Unlike Andrew, Fletcher is a working musician with a reputation good enough to land a coveted spot at a famous jazz festival. The prank he pulled on Andrew reflected badly on Fletcher and on the entire band as well, it would be safe to assume that they all wouldn’t be invited back. In the future, the members of the band are not going to want to play with Fletcher again and as word spreads many other professional musicians won’t either. If the sacrifice returned something more than a few minutes of humiliation suffered by the former naughty student, then Fletcher’s recklessness might seem more plausible, and because it doesn’t—it does not.
Finally, we are left without answers to several questions the movie compels us to ask. Fundamental questions such as; has Fletcher finally found the greatness he had been searching for in Andrew? What happens to Andrew, does he use this experience as a spring-board into a career as a musician or does he leave his drum kit behind to become an accountant with sadistic schoolmarm fetish? I suppose we will have to wait for Whiplash 2: the sequel to find out.
Ordinarily, a bad ending to a movie wouldn’t inspire much more than a sentence or two about it because, most of the time bad endings are attached to overall bad movies. However, Whiplash is not a bad movie—it had potential for greatness, and that is what makes the ending so much more tragic. To put the magnitude of the let-down into perspective, it is as if; Fletcher was pitching for the Chicago Cubs, in the seventh game of the World series; at the bottom of the 9th inning with bases loaded, and the score is tied 10-10. Then, out-of-the-blue he decides to exact revenge on an agoraphobic ball-boy (Andrew) by throwing four wild pitches which force the excruciatingly shy ball-boy out onto the field to retrieve the balls; to heck with his teammates and to hell with their fans. Then at the moment when you, and everyone else, realizes that Fletcher has just thrown the game which could have ended an over 100 year-long losing streak—the TV screen goes blank, cut to commercial. Two minutes and you find yourself watching Bring It On 3, the airing of which was already in progress, and you are left wondering what just happened and what is next? Did they burn down Wrigley Field; lynch the pitcher, or what? Imagine the frustration you would feel; that is the feeling that Whiplash left me with.
Whiplash is a brilliantly acted and fantastically composed masterpiece that almost was. For reasons already discussed, I give Whiplash 2 out of 5 stars. _ _ _ * *.