Finally saw Whiplash on Sunday night. I had the house to myself after doing an early-ish Easter dinner with Mrs. YHT’s family in northern Virginia, and I’d been meaning to watch the thing for ages, but this scathing piece by Sound Opinions host Jim DeRogatis was getting in the way. This wasn’t a Bob Dylan situation — you either love his voice or you hate it — DeRogatis’ thoughts punctured an acclaim bubble that had gotten huge, at least in terms of what I’d read and heard, and it complicated the idea of watching Whiplash. Should I consider this a guilty pleasure? Am I buying into something harmful?
Now that I’ve watched it, I believe the answers to those questions to be no and no, though I wasn’t so sure when Mrs. YHT called from her parents’ house to chat when I was about a third of the way through. Had the film continued on what seemed to be its likely trajectory — teacher yells, some students cower, this one steps up — I would have felt differently. And from a super zoomed-out perspective, that kind of is what happens, but it’s what happens along the way that keeps Whiplash from being exploitative or clichéd.
[Editor’s Note: Don’t want the movie’s plot spoiled? Stop reading now. And don’t listen to the song embedded at the bottom of this post.]
There is so much failure in Whiplash, and I love it. Not because it’s fun watching drummers get berated for microscopic and maybe nonexistent tempo transgressions, but because we see in vivid detail how monomania erodes the richness of the human experience. Neiman’s body breaks down, he lets competition ruin whatever thin relationships he had with other students, and forget about dating — that breakup conversation ranks up there with the most clueless I’ve seen. And while those could be romanticized as sacrifices on the path to greatness, the car crash can’t. That one’s a wake up call — one Neiman tries to ignore but can’t. He fails. That’s important to me. It gives Whiplash a conscience, as does the fact that Fletcher loses his job. He’s a monster, he deserves to be fired, and he’s fired. Maybe the cruelty-consequences scoreboard isn’t exactly tied at the end, but it’s in the ballpark, which freed me up to enjoy an ending that’s as good as any I’ve seen.
That closeup of Fletcher’s eyes smiling was satisfying to the point of intoxication. What a powerful illustration of the promised land that lies on the other side of a desperate quest for approval. Would the film have been more real or moral had Neiman been denied that eye smile? Maybe. But focusing on morality here is myopic — maybe not as myopic as the greatness obsession that forces these two star-crossed musicians to define their lives so narrowly, but still. That smile felt good, even if the fact that it felt good doesn’t itself feel good. Fletcher may be a monster and Neiman may be clueless, but that moment of connection was so human and true that it made me laugh out loud — a weird and humorless but happy laugh that will likely be my enduring memory of Whiplash. It took lots of wincing and internal bargaining to get there, but that laugh was worth it.
The final performance of “Caravan” — also worth it. So happy it’s the version that’s included on the soundtrack, which is now near the top of my Record Store Day want list.