There was R. Lee Ermy as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket. There was Alan Rickman as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter movies. There was Coach Eisenman, the five-foot-four toad who made this six-foot-three (then) boy’s life a living hell in P.E. period in the ninth grade. And now we have J.K. Simmons as Terrence Fletcher in Whiplash, a performance that will live for the ages.
First, I should say that I thoroughly disapprove of his brutal teaching methods. He is abusive, both mentally and physically. He totally dominates and terrifies his students, and let’s not even get into his politically incorrect epithets concerning religion and sexual preference. It has been shown over and over that better results are achieved by compassion and understanding.
And yet … I found this in one review: “Whiplash gives a dichotomy on a teacher being inspiring and abusive all at the same time.” And I think it’s true. Such a monster can produce brilliance, if he is brilliant himself, and if the student is tough. Gunny Hartman probably produced a lot of excellent killing machines (one of them too excellent, to his sorrow).
But Coach Eisenman produced nothing but a few mediocre football players and a lot of traumatized youth like myself who hated exercise all their lives. The best teacher I ever had, our band director Mr. Kelley, was a force of nature, like Mr. Fletcher. But he never raised his voice to us, never berated us, and would never in a million years touch us. He didn’t need to. All he had to do was pin us with his eyes, full of disappointment, weary sadness, and a certain amount of withering scorn, and shame us into doing better. And he only did this when we deserved it. When we were slacking off, not giving it 110%, settling for less than he knew we could do. He made us want to do better. As a result, we won trophies at every band meeting we attended. Pride was our only payoff. It was more than enough.
Enough about the story and teaching philosophies. Technically and musically, the film is exceptional. (Yes, I know that a lot of jazz buffs have attacked it for several things, but I don’t give a shit.) I will admit that I don’t know anything about drum solos. I have heard some that I knew were brilliant (Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich) and some I thought was just a lot of hammering, but other people thought were good. I also know very little, technically, about jazz. I don’t know what a chart is, and many other things about it are Greek to me. But I know what I like, and progressive, complex big band stuff is near the top of my list. The noisier, the better. The featured number, “Whiplash,” is in 7/8 time, impossible for me to keep up with but very much to my liking, and the arrangement of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” is terrific. The kid, Miles Teller, is an actual drummer, and is said to have done about half of his own drumming. His hands really did bleed when the blisters broke. The other players in the band are obviously doing their own playing, not miming. I understand that J.K. Simmons really can play the piano, too, and can sure do a bang-up job of imitating a conductor. It all looked as authentic as hell, probably because so much of it was.
For once, the film editing deserves a shout-out. Mostly you don’t notice stuff like that, and that’s as it should be. But here it was a symphony on its own. During the last, long performance, especially, the film is cut to enhance the music. The editor, Tom Cross, who won the Oscar, uses a lot of techniques that I sometimes don’t even like, such as extreme close-ups of the musicians and their instruments, but he does it so well that I had no objections at all. It becomes an important part of the narrative.
And lastly, if I may, call your mom, call your dad. If you’re lucky enough to have a parent, or two, alive on this planet, call them. Don’t text, don’t email, call them on the phone, tell them you love them, and thank them, and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you.