Belated Film Review: ‘Whiplash’ is an Impossible, Perfect, Gorgeous Film

by Kolby Solinsky

White Cover Magazine

Whiplash is beautiful in almost every way. Fuck that, actually – it is beautiful in every year.

The music is an obvious draw, and the cinematography’s dark and hinting enough to keep pace. The film was Miles Teller’s explosion into your attention, although, if you were paying attention, you’d have known him beforehand. And JK Simmons, what do you have to say? The guy won an Oscar for his role, and rightly so: I often think the best way to tell whether an actor’s done well in a part is to ask yourself, ‘Did I even notice he was in the movie?’ You see, Simmons is a familiar enough actor – and still, it was hard to remember he was on the screen even when he was on the screen. Simmons became his character. You never knew you were watching JK Simmons because you weren’t watching JK Simmons – you were watching a crazy-ass, nose-to-genius jazz teacher.

And I loved that teacher. I loved him because he made complete sense, because he was excellent. And Whiplash doesn’t preach a fresh thesis: we’ve heard too often that determination and passion and hard work are the keys to making any dream come true. In reality, they’re more important than that: they’re not the keys to dreams, they’re the keys to goals. Goals are an everyday accomplishment. Dreams are something loftier and, often, something impossible.

That’s not supposed to sound negative. If dreams were truly within our reach, they wouldn’t be dreams, would they? It’s the green light in Gatsby. Even if he gets the girl, that light won’t ever fade.

But not enough do movies actually show us what that motivational poster looks like. They tell us – they don’t show us. That’s the cardinal sin of storytelling, the same reason I still feel defrauded by most of Narcos or anything with a narrator. Shouldn’t the screen be showing me whatever that voice is talking about? Why do I need the voice?

In Whiplash, Miles Teller is tortured for the sake of minimal improvement. But any improvement is improvement, and perfection is the same thing as a dream – the closer you get, the further you are from it. Teller fights through physical breakdown, a near-fatal car crash, a coldhearted breakup, and he thrives off it all. Even when he attacks his teacher on-stage and torpedoes his position at his school and in his band, you get the sense he was loving the rejection and the embarrassment.

Because the whole time, Teller knows what Simmons is doing. He hates him, he loves him.

Friends don’t matter to him. Girlfriends don’t matter to him. His father, eventually, doesn’t matter that much to him. Money doesn’t matter to him. He’s playing for eternity, not economy. He’s aiming for the stratosphere, not 5 p.m. on a Friday.

(It’s here that I should mention, as a side note, that I know there are those out there who didn’t like Whiplash – even hated it. The film impresses its average viewer because hardly anyone knows a damn thing about jazz, and it throws out names like Buddy Rich and Charlie “Yardbird” Parker to hook onto something. But, whatever. As a movie – and as a movie about the hustle – it’s terrific. It’s powerful and subtle and it builds to a crescendo, pun completely intended.)

Nobody who loves Teller sees what he can see, and that only inspires him more. It’s why he eventually goes back to Simmons, why he risks his sanity again for a chance to win his respect.

And the respect does come. It comes after an excellently blunt conversation about Charlie Parker and greatness, about how there’s no such thing as pushing someone too far, because the real greats wouldn’t quit. Simmons isn’t worried about whether he’s ruined someone’s love for music, because he knows that love isn’t real if he can ruin it.

The final scene is gorgeous and it’s a relief. It’s predictable, but that doesn’t hurt it. Not at all. When Teller is finally able to find the stratosphere, when he finally enters the eye of the needle of ground zero of the tornado, he gets only a smile from Simmons. It’s slow-motion and cut-off by the camera. But Teller smiles back.

His father looks on as well, played excellently by Paul Reiser. And when the camera catches his Pops watching his son, finally separating himself from the canopy, there’s a wonderful expression on his face: it turns from awe to shock, then to pride, and then to fear. Reiser is terrified, knowing he’s not only ever been as good at anything as his son is at drumming, and not that he’ll never be able to be as good at anything as his sin is at drumming, but that he doesn’t even have the ability to come close.

His father gets it. His son is greater than him.

And then, the song continues. Because he was perfect, finally. And he has to do it again.