Whiplash: JK Simmons’ second most appealing Nazi

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“I don’t sound like nobody” Elvis Presley 1953

The genius of Elvis Presley and Sam Phillips was that they both insisted that the mistakes stay in as long as the feeling was right. That is something the kids and the teacher portrayed in this movie will never understand.

Whiplash is the easily the most fascist movie that I have ever seen. I hope to God that its creator meant it as a cautionary tale, but its perfectionist zeal is so fevered that it makes me tend to doubt it.

At age 49, I know that it’s a lie, but at 18, there would be no way that I could have avoided its evil appeal. This is how amazing people are at their jobs each day. This is why everybody in this country is unhappy and on mood medication.

If you watch the documentary,The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, the German director now known forever to the world as Hitler’s filmmaker, is shown watching a scene from her propaganda masterpiece, Triumph of the Will. After the Holocaust was exposed for what it was, the film ruined Riefenstahl’s life and reputation forever. Her excuse was that she did it for a paycheck or under some sort of duress, but you can see the joy behind her eyes at what a masterpiece of the form that she created. To her, even that was worth it.

Miles Davis knew that the message behind this movie is corrupt and empty when he was exactly the same age as the movie’s protagonist. It was at that age that he dropped out of Julliard in the mid ‘40s. He did so to play with Charlie Parker, irony that I doubt many people will truly understand given the fact that Parker-level genius and dedication is at the core of this film’s mythology.

Miles Davis was also a true genius, and somehow he knew immediately that no matter how proficient the musicians at Julliard were that they had nothing of any value to offer to him and his life. In fact, had Miles Davis stayed at Julliard, he likely would have missed out on the opportunity to accompany Parker in recording the very invention of Be-Bop sides that this movie professes to worship as canon.

Whiplash isn’t about Art; it’s about insanity and sadism, and for that reason it could be argued to be without merit at all. But it’s not just an evil movie like Pauline Kael thought Dirty Harry was an evil movie. It’s actually a technically perfect film with a suicidal message. There are moments in it where it seems to be edited to suck you in and make you think you are truly seeing something great when in reality all the greatness is being sucked out of the room.

Miles Teller’s performance as desperate-to-be-great Jazz drummer Andrew in this movie is maybe the most physically demanding thing that I’ve seen done in a film. His character suffers from the worst kind of child abuse that I’ve ever experienced. JK Simmons in this movie makes Robert Duvall’s two psychotic anti-hero performances in The Great Santini and Apocalypse Now seem tame in comparison. I’d send my kid into the jungles of the Vietnam War one hundred times before I’d let him buy into the fascism of this movie.

There’s a scene where Teller’s Andrew tells off some friends of his father’s at an otherwise normal dinner. One of the other sons is a Division III Football player, which would probably make him something like one of the top five percent of all athletes born that year. Andrew has been sold something far more nefarious than becoming a professional athlete. He is willing to endure pure physical and emotional torture for the slimmest of chances at becoming a once in a lifetime genius, and it’s a pursuit that is destined to fail even if the film ends mid stroke, on a note of pure heightened revelry.

In John Lennon’s first extensive post Beatles interviews with Rolling Stone Magazine editor Jann Wenner, he is asked if he considers himself to be a genius. Lennon’s exact reply was, “Yes, if there is such a thing as one, I am one.”

WENNER:

When did you first realize that?

LENNON:

When I was about 12. I used to think I must be a genius, but nobody’s noticed. I used to wonder whether I’m a genius or I’m not, which is it? I used to think, well, I can’t be mad, because nobody’s put me away, therefore, I’m a genius. A genius is a form of madness, and we’re all that way, you know, and I used to be a bit coy about it, like my guitar playing.

If there is such a thing as genius–which is what… what the fuck is it?–I am one, and if there isn’t, I don’t care. I used to think it when I was a kid, writing me poetry and doing me paintings. I didn’t become something when the Beatles made it, or when you heard about me, I’ve been like this all me life. Genius is pain too.

The nefarious lesson of centuries worth of capitalism is this notion that only under pure cutthroat competition can something great be achieved and it’s just not true even if Brian Wilson did manage to go insane trying to top Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. At least I hope it isn’t true. John Lennon wanted it just as badly as Andrew, which means perhaps as badly as anyone ever. What Andrew will go through in Whiplash makes a hundred amphetamine fueled nights in Hamburg look almost genteel. In today’s America it’s what goes down as putting in your 10,000 hours.

During that dinner conversation, the football player, who is used to games that keep score, asks Andrew if the judging of a musical performance might not be a little subjective and his answer without any shred of doubt is that there is absolutely nothing subjective about it. Half of the heroes in this movie probably couldn’t read music and no matter what it says only one in a million ever worked that hard to make it perfect. That’s why mad people spend their life listening for new pieces of genius in endless outtakes that were probably tossed off half-heartedly. This teacher wants to play perfectly what was never meant to be canon as if it were written down by Tom Hulce at the end of Amadeus.

The key to Michael Jordan, who is viewed like Charlie Parker in Whiplash, as the very pinnacle of his pursuit, was that Jordan’s incomparable physical gifts were only exceeded by his infinitely, uncompromising level of competitiveness. There isn’t a kid being taught by JK Simmons’ Fletcher that wouldn’t kill the person in the next chair over to him just to get his attention, and that’s truly ugly. This is essentially the damage done to people by those who cheer for books and movies like The Hunger Games, only every single person in this film wants desperately to be chosen to fight it out to the death for some notion of glory or greatness.

The fact that Fletcher can prey on his horde with hip talk of what it was like the day Jo Jones tossed a cymbal at Yardbird, makes the movie even more nefarious. It’s a lot like the statue of John Lennon that resides in Cuba. The master co-opted by someone else’s message.

That incident was also the centerpiece of Clint Eastwood’s 1980 movie bio of Parker, Bird. Every liberal in the country is running away from Eastwood’s American Sniper as quickly as possible, but Whiplash is easily the bigger threat to an America whose ambition can’t stop running for a second.

Again there is no score. This is how badly John Coltrane chased this madness. He would play a concert that no one else in the world could top and then he’d immediately retire and continue to practice. When it was too late for him to play in his apartment, he would just resume practicing without blowing into the horn, but he was John Coltrane, not some over achieving Jewish kid from the suburbs who has bought into the notion of artistic perfection. There’s also a church in San Francisco where they worship Coltrane’s work as real proof of the divine in man’s pursuits and that’s perhaps the only Church I would ever become a part of.

In Woody Hayes’ last game as coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes, he came off the sideline and tried to punch a Clemson defender who had just made an interception against his team. Hayes wanted to kill that kid! He was fired for it because he was essentially at the tail end of his life, but had he been in his prime, he would have had a new job by the next day and every sadistic fool with some bit of talent would be begging to play for him. That’s the thing: Andrew is so mentally sick that he wants exactly this. He wants to reach every ounce of his potential. Even after he is nearly killed by the level of his pursuit, he still feels completely sick to have to turn on Fletcher – in fact, he wants even more, if that were somehow possible, to be taught by Fletcher.

JK Simmons made his name playing Verne Schillinger on the television show Oz. Schillinger was a jailed murderer who had embraced the Aryan Brotherhood and he wasn’t a fraction as scary as Fletcher is in Whiplash. He is a pure bread Nazi training a compliant Jewish soldier to die in battle right in front of his ambitious art-loving proud father, and they are no longer playing Wagner, they’ve co-opted the very jazz music that Hitler despised or at least that I’ve been told Hitler despised by the movie Swing Kids.

The message of Whiplash is the exact opposite of that portrayed by Searching for Bobby Fischer. In that movie, the protagonist won by choosing to fail. He didn’t become Bobby Fischer, but at the end he had a chance for a somewhat healthy and enjoyable life. Andrew and his father are shown watching movies together frequently in Whiplash. They’d spit at the notion of that movie’s conclusion, because he didn’t become the next Bobby Fischer but he also didn’t wind up dead and he didn’t tragically die in a heap of his own guts a tortured soul like Parker did at the age of 34. This kid comes right out and says I’d rather be Charlie Parker, while Jewish comedian Paul Reiser looks on worshipfully at the son he has created and was there a crueler example of anti-Semitic insanity than the raised as Jewish exile that was the end of Bobby Fischer’s life.

It’s not for a second believable that this is a film that just happens to portray a Nazi and two Jews, and I almost never see that kind of madness in anything.For this film, that’s just another note to play. Whiplash makes the levels of racism that John Wayne portrayed in John Ford’s The Searchersseem almost humane in comparison.

Simmons performance goes further than George C Scott’s in Patton only because his hateful, homophobic bile is allowed to be filled with words and ideas that would never have been allowed at the time Patton was made. At no point in this movie does Fletcher ever seem to understand that he’s coaching a band and not a group of individual Supermen. It would be bad enough if they were trying to be the best Jazz musicians of their time, but the notion of Whiplash is that this is how once in a lifetime artists are made, but it isn’t war, it’s supposed to be about Art. Charlie Parker had a terrible, tortured, drug addicted life, but he still got more fun and joy out of music by the time that he died than Andrew or any other of these kids that buy into Whiplash’s greatness narrative ever has a chance to.

This isn’t football, it’s music. You don’t make artists the way that you make soldiers. Fletcher has these kids master four or five timeless jazz pieces until they are played into the ground and strangled. This movie ends with the triumph of perhaps one or two of its spawn making it to the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to play ’30s and ‘40sjJazz classics under Wynton Marsalis, but that’s exactly where Marsalis fails as an all time artist. Marsalis can play every piece of recorded jazz as perfectly as it was recorded, and tell you lovingly why every single beat is genius, but that’s why Marsalis is probably going to go down in history as a Salieri and not a Mozart.

I actually think Marsalis is a great musician, who has carried the shield for real jazz nobly, but he’s still the guy who stopped talking to his brother because he wanted to play with Sting, and he’s still the guy who sees Miles Davis as the ultimate perpetrator of treason. I remember him being quoted over twenty years ago as saying, “it (Miles Davis’abandonment of classic jazz) was like our greatest general had switched to the other side.”
That’s the exact same way that people looked at Bob Dylan, but he was a true artist and the furthest thing from being a soldier. The second that Bob Dylan wanted to go electric; the second that Miles Davis thought about playing with Jimi Hendrix; the second that John Lennon decided that he wanted to leave the Beatles and be with Yoko Ono they left the rest of the non genius world behind. All of the dead soldiers piled in a heap at true greatness scoffed and declared them no longer relevant, which is why when you try to recreate Bo Jackson with taciturn joyless precision, you end up with Todd Marinovich. Even if it was just a myth, Michael Jordan purportedly had “a love of the game” clause in his contract that allowed him to play for joy whenever he saw fit.

For a movie about great music, this film is joyless. It doesn’t even provide enough music to have a soundtrack, but you could buy the soundtrack of this movie 50 years ago, and that level of music can never be topped and it especially can’t be topped by slavishly replaying it note for note. I’m aware that at the end of this movie Andrew is seen to hit heights that only true levels of genius possess, but I refuse to believe that you can get there from here. This is the movie that makes you glad that you quit taking guitar lessons at eight and I’m not sure how that is even possible.
When Fletcher seemingly opens up to his students on the death of one of his prior soldiers, he lies and tells his charges that his student’s death was an accident, I could immediately tell that he was lying and that the kid died of suicide, drugs or both. The nefarious thing is that Fletcher thinks it was worth it because the kid could play, but had he leveled with his class they would have still ventured into battle under him twice as hard, because they are victims of a tired and useless narrative.

Anyone who believes that the ends of Whiplash justify the means of Whiplash has already been left behind by the real thing. This is a coaching movie about human nature, and the coach rides his pupil to the edge of greatness, while leaving a bloodbath of gutted soldiers dead in his wake. The end of Whiplash isn’t a triumph, it’s more like the final gruesome battle scene in the movie Glory where everyone dies, and although Andrew is seen to win the battle, he’s just another dead soldier that is grist for the mill, while true genius is off somewhere else chasing its whimsy.

I hope that is Damien Chazelle’s true message, but I doubt it, and even if it is he probably still believes that he came up short of his own goals. So enticing is this auteur myth that I myself am uncertain if my own life hasn’t become a victim of similar thinking.

2 Responses to “Whiplash: JK Simmons’ second most appealing Nazi”

  1. Brad, your review of Whiplash is a perspective. I can never match your knowledge and intellect in the areas of movies and music, but I truly think you missed the mark on the greatness that is Whiplash. Your focus on the extremes to which Andrew Neiman (the drummer played by Miles Teller) would go to achieve perfection and Terence Fletcher (the conductor played by J. K. Simmons) would go to demand perfection clouded the real story that was taking place in my opinion.

    I’ll give a perspective that is slightly different.

    I will submit that Whiplash is a modern day version of the movie Rocky on steroids where the setting is the world of music as opposed to the world of boxing. Everything in the movie drives the idea that Andrew wanted to be one of the greatest drummers in a generation and that kind greatness for some comes at a cost. Whiplash…like Rocky…is about triumph of the human condition over unimaginable forces. In that vein Whiplash achieves a kind of artistic greatness that does not come along very often.

    I’ll start with the following postulate…greatness is achieved either through nature or nurture. Very few in life are great by nature. Lennon, Dylan, Van Gogh, Jordan, Einstein, etc. probably had it in them at birth. They likely did not work their craft “until their hands bled”…maybe they did…that is only my hunch as my recollection of history (i.e. I am submitting that my knowledge on these individuals could be incomplete on this point) never indicated such about those individuals. For the rest of us who are not as gifted, a similar kind of greatness can only be achieved through hard work…the kind of physical and mental hard work that is impossible to comprehend by most. Some people are wired in such a way to be able to achieve greatness through that kind of hard work. Whiplash tries to convey to the audience that kind of dedication and drive in those who are not as gifted, but have the internal fortitude to strive and achieve similar greatness.

    This kind of greatness is not for everybody. Greatness of the kind achieved by the ones mentioned above and by Andrew in Whiplash is reached by fractions of a percent of those who try. This movie is not about what everyone can accomplish. This movie is about accomplishments that only a small fraction of people in the world today can realize.

    Throughout the movie, the degree of extreme insanity in Terence who beats down Andrew every chance he gets to either break him or make him better, and the equally insane degree to which Andrew pushes himself to rise to his mentor’s expectations only drives the point of the movie that I indicated. This is stone sharpening steel metaphorically. It needs to be that crazy and insane for the audience to appreciate Andrew’s character in the way the Director was intending. This is a war of personalities and war is never pretty. I do not think that the movie is suggesting that this is how life should be for everyone, but it is giving indication of what one may be up against at the very top levels of anything if you want to be better than your competition. Your competition is working hard and unless you are gifted you will have to work harder than them to achieve your goals, and more importantly…your competition knows that too and is trying to work even harder. For some that will be enough to cede the chance for greatness to the other person. For others it will be the challenge they need to make themselves better tomorrow than they are today. I am granting that Whiplash takes this premise to an extreme, but in the realm of artistic license this is no different than some of the other edges that are pushed in the name of art. At least Whiplash as an artistic movie at worst pseudo-represents a microcosm of society that is real today. The other more edgy areas of art usually (e.g. Mapplethorpe comes to mind…I’m sure there are plenty others) are just trying to see how much more offensive they can be than the previous artist getting the latest praises in the New York Times. To me that it not art at all, but I do not claim to be a connoisseur of all things artistic. This is one of those cases where beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.

    Your comparative critique of Whiplash to Searching for Bobby Fischer (SFBF) is an interesting one (as an aside…SFBF is possibly my favorite movie of all time…I go back and forth between SFBF and Stand and Deliver). I saw SFBF as more about the relationship between a father and his son with the son’s pursuit of chess greatness as a backdrop to the greater relationship plot in the movie. The father initially was that person who expected perfection from his son but eventually realizes that what his son wants (his father’s unconditional love) is more important than the father’s initial aspirations for his son. It was the child teaching the parent something about life. At the end of SFBF, Josh Waitzkin offered a draw to his opponent because he knew he has him beat and he did not want his opponent to disappoint his father. It was not about the game, it was about Josh elevating the relationship he has with his father over the game in that moment knowing that the only thing the opponent’s father cared about was his son winning the chess match. Josh did not want his opponent to go through that kind of grief when he lost the match.

    The difference between SFBF and Whiplash was with the ages of the protagonists. Josh in SFBF was very young (under ten years old?) where Andrew in Whiplash was in college. Josh was looking to “find” his father and their relationship, and Andrew had a relationship with his father and was looking to find himself. I don’t think that comparing and contrasting these two movies is entirely fair on that basis, but again, that is my opinion. I think they are both great movies on their own merits.

    I know what I am saying will not change the minds of those who see Whiplash as a movie that is more violence over triumph, but at a minimum I hope such an exchange of dialogue will help to illuminate the human condition as we sharpen each other’s individual perspectives much like a stone sharpen a knife.

  2. Good Rebuttal. I thought it was a great movie- just one with a horrible message.

    It is sort of a sports movie but sports aren’t art

    Would you let your son study under Fletcher?

    There is no real joy in the music – they simply try to play what wasn’t meant to be played perfectly over and over – the same four songs apparently.

    Read about Todd Marinovich

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