*Contains obvious spoilers about the film, which I recommend you watch if you haven’t already.
Let me begin by saying that Whiplash is a masterpiece. That’s not a word I use lightly – when I was 12 (and an idiot) I once announced that Titanic was a ‘masterpiece’ in the cinema and a teenage girl who was sat behind me poured an entire tub of popcorn over my head. True story, and totally fucking deserved. Masterpieces, especially in Western cinema, come once in a blue moon. They triumph over stereotypes, they make you so invested in the story that they haunt you for days afterwards, demanding immediate second and even third viewings. Whiplash is exactly that – funny, exhilarating, beautifully shot, spectacularly acted. It’s a love narrative which exists beyond our usual narrative understanding of romantic love, directing it’s gaze instead on an aggressive music teacher, his musical paramour and creative determination.
Whiplash is a love story which truly made my heart race.
This isn’t love in the usual romantic ‘I want to fuse myself to your body and never be ripped off from it’ sort of way (d’amour!) but in that other sense of love: the true passion of your life. The skill which obsesses and plagues you: the one which you’re born with a compulsion to do. For some people that might be just be other people, and that’s fine, but for a lot of us it manifests itself in music, writing or art. You do what you do and you want to be the best you possibly can at it. It’s the driving force for your entire being. You think about it the same way that Heathcliffe thought of Catherine, Anna Karenina thought of Count Vronsky and the way that Demi Moore thought of Patrick Swayze in Ghost. In short, it’s the love of your life.
The first time I saw Whiplash I have to admit that I noticed a lot of homo-erotic undertones. This isn’t to say that they’re necessarily intended to be there, but more that this is something I’ve unconsciously trained my brain to do after years of watching hyper-masculine Holywood bullshit time and again. I make up homo-erotic subplots between male characters to make them more interesting. It’s a fun way to make your average Hollywood blockbuster more bearable and as such I highly recommend it. Whiplash, obviously, didn’t need for my brain to interpret it that way, but there’s only so many times you can see JK Simmons screaming ‘FASTER!’ at a sweaty Miles Teller before that part of my brain goes into overdrive.
The second time I saw Whiplash, I noticed something else entirely. It has the structure of a romantic comedy.
Now, I’m well aware that there’s only so many narratives in the World and of them Whiplash obviously falls into one of the main structures, and it’s easy to read this and think ‘what an over-reaching hack’. That’s cool. I over analyse. I often read too much into everything. But Whiplash is a romantic comedy. It’s a love story played out between one teenager and his desire to be the absolute best drummer he possibly can be and a teacher who wants to get the very best out of his students, and even possibly create ‘one of the greats’. That overall achievement is their Meg Ryan.
Love meets a Challenge
With any romantic comedy we’re introduced to the main protagonists, their love (or potential for love) and with it some kind of challenge which stands in the way of that love being realised. In Notting Hill, Hugh Grant is just the average, bumbling upper middle class twat he is in every film and Julia Roberts is a more pleasant version of the Hollywood actress she is in real life (it would never work!). In While You Were Sleeping, Sandra Bullock falls in love (via stalking) with a man who is attacked by some local youths and falls into a coma, before Bullock lies to his family about their romantic involvement and eventually falls in love with his brother (quite the predicament! Cupid loves an insanely convoluted challenge).
In Whiplash we’re introduced to Andrew (Miles Teller) practising drums. He’s practising them hard. His love and determination for his craft are obvious when Fletcher – the big shot professor at his music college – enters and tells him to run through some standards for him. He’s a prick and he pushes him. He also plays hard to get. Because deep down you know that Fletcher wants exactly what Andrew does: he sees the potential in him to be ‘one of the greats’ but he isn’t going to let him get there easily. In fact, getting there easily won’t get him there at all.
The challenge is not only committing to the craft full time in order to become the best but also in putting up with Fletcher’s rigorous, motivational abuse to get there.
If you think about it in terms of any Adam Sandler rom-com, then Andrew’s drumming is Sandler, his musical goal is Drew Barrymore and Fletcher is Sandler’s relentless assholism that Andrew must take on board and get over in order to achieve the happy ending. Because, obviously, the biggest challenge in any Adam Sandler rom-com is Sandler himself.
The Other Woman
Whiplash is a movie with only one female character in it. For once, this is a movie where that’s fine to be case. We don’t need women to tell this story. The one woman in the film is Andrew’s love interest Nicole (Melissa Benoist), who’s introduced in the same way all love interests in Oscar Nominated stories about ‘underdogs’ are and the expectation is that she’ll be there in the final denouement, cheering him on as he achieves his dream.
Except she isn’t. In fact, Nicole is there as the unwanted distraction. She’s Bill Pullman in While You Were Sleeping, blissfully happy to idle time reading the papers over brunch whilst Meg Ryan is feverishly daydreaming about Tom Hanks.
To achieve his great love, Andrew has to coldly kick her to curb. She’s stopping him from becoming the best.
It’s a terrific subversion of Hollywood narrative which plays on right until the finale, where Andrew tries to win back Nicole by inviting her to his first major performance. Except, she has a boyfriend. And he doesn’t like jazz. So, she might be there but probably not. We wholly expect that she will turn up though – because that’s how movies roll. We expect Andrew to play the shit out of the drums and for Nicole to be there in the front row, weeping tears of joy and flinging her knickers at the stage.
But she isn’t. In fact, by the denouement you don’t even miss her. Because romantic love isn’t the big win of this film.
The Consummation of Desire…
At some point in your average romantic comedy, the two characters are probably going to consummate their struggling relationship in some way. Be it via awkward phone sex (The Truth About Cats and Dogs), AOL email threads (You’ve Got Mail) or full on, throwing a spanner in the works (so to be speak) screwing (When Harry Met Sally).
It usually entails an entire, sleepless night of fraught decision making and sweaty realisations. Some kind of mistake often gets made – Billy Crystal turns into an arsehole who won’t stay for breakfast or possibly even ever see Meg Ryan again or Janeane Garafolo realises that Ben Chaplin has been rubbing one out to her voice whilst thinking about Uma Thurman’s lovely…well, everything.
In Whiplash the consummation is definitely sweaty and extremely physical. Fletcher even keeps the whole college orchestra up all night whilst he forces the three competing drummers to outdo each other in maintaining ‘his tempo’ correctly so he can decide who should be the lead at the next concert. He bangs a cow bell in Andrew’s face, throws toms at his head and screams vicious, spit sprayed insults in all of the drummer’s faces (so, kind of like your average 50 Shades of Grey sex scene, then?).
…and the Ensuing Dissolution of the ‘Relationship’
As is so often the case with the rom-com, the consummation doesn’t directly lead to the fairy tale ending. In fact, it often leads to the dissolution of the primary relationship, pushing the potential for that final achievement of the protagonists desires even further from their grasp. Andrew might make the lead drummer of the band for the concert, but insurmountable obstacles stand in the way of him achieving the greatness he’s worked so hard for.
His bus breaks down on the way to the concert. He misses his connecting ride. He leaves his drum sticks in the car rental store. He gets hit by a motherfucking truck speeding his rental car back to the concert (but he has his sticks!). He’s too broken up from being in a car crash to play the drums.
It’s basically like any of the Friends episodes where Ross and Rachel almost get together but some impossible set of circumstances keeps them apart (COMEDY!).
The scene ends in Andrew physically attacking Fletcher on stage. Which is basically the moment that Meg Ryan slaps Billy Crystal at their friends wedding in When Harry Met Sally for him being such a dick about the night they ‘made love’.
Amen to that.
One of the most overused tropes within romantic comedies by far, the ‘deception’ element is the final obstacle before the happy ending can happen. It’s Heath Ledger lying to Julia Stiles about the fact that he was paid to start dating her so some teen model could bang her sister on prom night in 10 Things I Hate About You, or Freddie Prinze Jnr lying to Rachel Leigh Cook in She’s All That about their ‘relationship’ being on the premise of a juvenile dare. The lie has to come out, the lovers become divided and the ending hinges on the deceiver proving their worth.
Earlier on Whiplash we learn that one of Fletcher’s ex-students has died. Initially he tells his class that the kid died in a car crash (which is wonderful foreshadowing for the car crash Andrew gets in right before he’s kicked off the course), although we later learn that he actually hung himself – possibly off the back of the pressure placed on him by Fletcher’s unconventional teaching methods.
This, however, isn’t the true deception of the story. The real deception comes when Andrew’s persuaded to provide an anonymous statement against Fletcher in a lawsuit which will see him fired from his job and unable to practice teaching ever again.
The scene is done so well that we don’t really think of it again. We’re led to believe that the real ending of the story is that Andrew will win back his ex-girlfriend and that he might still have a chance at becoming the drummer he so wants to be without Fletcher’s teachings.
But within the rom-com structure, the deception must be exposed and only then can our protagonists finally be fulfilled.
The Happy Ending / Proving Their Worth
The finale of Whiplash is outstanding. It also, as one of my friends so accurately and graphically depicted, feels like a grandiose orgasmic climax: beat after beat, sweat dripping, two men overcoming their ultimate disdain for one another to rediscover their mutual respect and make some sweet ass music.
There’s a second deception that Andrew and Fletcher must overcome to achieve that final moment of happiness: Fletcher has only invited Andrew to play with his orchestra as revenge for providing the anonymous statement to the courts which got him fired. He’s given him the wrong music sheets to play from and the wrong songs to learn in a bid to publicly humiliate him and ruin any chance he might have at a serious drumming career.
Andrew is humiliated. The audience is horrified. Fletcher is delighted. But Andrew doesn’t give up, returning to the stage to play a triumph of a drum solo and lead the orchestra into playing Caravan along with him.
That drum performance is the final gesture or speech of any romantic comedy. It’s Heath Ledger giving Julia Stiles the Fender Stratocaster of her dreams which he bought with the money he made off dating her. It’s Julia Roberts telling Hugh Grant that she’s just a girl standing in front of a boy asking him to love her. It’s Billy Crystal running through the streets of New York at midnight on New Years Eve to tell Meg Ryan that he loves her.
Andrew knows he has what it takes to be the best and at the same moment understands what Fletcher has done for him, having pushed him to this pinnacle of his achievement. He’s finally worthy of being ‘one of the greats’ and Fletcher has finally found his own Charlie Parker, wherein vaulting a cymbal at someone’s head apparently results in musical genius.
The movie is then sealed with the most unconventional of kisses – close ups of Fletcher and Andrew locking eyes with each other, holding the timing before the final beat and before the screen fades to black, a mutual look of appreciation glimmering between each other. A shared achievement. A nod of approval.
A love story.