They Got the Beat

Oscar season is often a time I'll catch up with the movies I missed that got awards buzz in the previous year. Now that time has passed and the public's attention has moved on, do these movies deserve the praise they got? Or were they a lot of hype with not much substance to back it up? Today's entry is a strange one. Damien Chazelle's 2014 movie Whiplash won Oscars for Best Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons), Best Editing, and Best Sound Mixing, and was nominated for Best Writing and naturally, Best Picture.

So why is it strange? Because I fully support the awards it won, and fully support the awards it lost. J.K. Simmons really did deserve all the raves he got for his performance, but on the whole, Whiplash is...not a good movie. The story in a nutshell is a journey we've seen several times: Talented student endures hell from a punishing mentor and in the process, hones his art. The specifics here being that Andrew (Miles Teller) is a drum student in the jazz program at a prestigious music academy, and Fletcher (Simmons) is the director who rules with an iron fist.

These two, it soon becomes clear, are made for each other, because they're both so passionate as to become destructive. Andrew has a tense relationship with his family, has no friends, and is both unable and unwilling to put any effort into forging any sort of romantic relationship. All he cares about is the music. Fletcher is physically and emotionally abusive to his students, routinely driving them to tears, to constant states of quaking terror, and in one case, even further. All he cares about is the music.

Sounds pretty interesting, right? We get to watch an unstoppable force square off against an unmovable post, and the result is that artistic endeavors become better and more creative. Hooray! There's just one problem. Actually, strike that. There's just two problems. Let's take them separately:

1) Enough with the Tortured Asshole Genius trope, already. Is it me, or is 85% of film and television based around this now? Nobody can just be talented. Nobody can get where they are through hard work and having supportive friends and family. No, there must be Grand Obstacles to overcome. If you don't suffer to the point of madness or death for your art, nothing you produce can have any worth. This doesn't just go for music. If you want to be a chef, a writer, or even an assistant to a magazine editor, you have to go through THE SHIT. And by the way, having a horrendous personality is not only a reasonable by-product of your suffering, it's actually a necessary component for success.

Both Andrew and Fletcher are objectively terrible people. Which is fine; I don't need movies to contain nothing but pleasant characters. But they, along with all of the other Tortured Asshole Geniuses these days, are actively rewarded for their behavior. Why would I want to see that? If stuff like this just happened a few times, I wouldn't care. But rewarding jerks because we simply can't ignore the burning talent their jerkiness inspired seems to now be the norm instead of the exception, and I don't care for that.

2) Let's hear it for reaching the pinnacle of art! Jazz drumming?!? One of the people I follow on Twitter summed this up nicely: "So this is The Devil Wears Prada except it’s all men and they’re making something no one wants?" Yep, pretty much. The movie tries to lampshade this by having Fletcher complain to Andrew that jazz has been ruined by mediocrity, which is why the general public doesn't much care about it anymore. That's why he's so hard on students, you see. By making them bleed and go crazy, he's just re-elevating jazz, you guys! Totally acceptable!

Indeed, if absolutely everything worked out for Andrew - if he achieved the level of talent and fame he yearns for - he'd still be ignored by 99.99% of the population, which the movie refuses to admit. They repeatedly reference famous jazz names like Jo Jones, Louis Armstrong, and Charlie Parker. All of those gentlemen were fantastic, of course, but they also belong to another era. As the movie draws to a close, we're "treated" to a drum solo by Andrew that lasts conservatively sixteen hours. As the audience, we're expected to cheer for him. This is his moment! All of the blood, sweat, and tears have paid off. Instead, it's excruciatingly dull. Even an audience that likes jazz would be sick of it by the halfway point.

So, congrats to J.K. Simmons. His portrayal of Fletcher is terrifying and raw, and a fine demonstration of some quality acting. If only the movie that contained it was as good about selling its art.

Whiplash: C+


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