Whiplash: The Power of Story

Sunday afternoon, in the warm, dark cocoon of a movie theatre—my husband working, the rest of the immediate universe watching the Superbowl—I saw a powerful, brilliant film. One of the best I’ve seen.

 

Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, is a small-budget marvel that brings home the power of story, reminding us how few bells and whistles are needed to rivet an audience. A simple plot, a clear theme, a setting that inhabits the characters, but doesn’t draw attention away from them. A story driven by the will and force of its characters. Characters you cannot turn your mind away from.

 

Andrew (Miles Teller), a freshman at a fictionalized New York music conservatory, is a gifted, introverted jazz drummer who goes to movies with his dad (Paul Reiser) and stares longingly at the pretty girl who serves him up a bucket of popcorn (Melissa Benoist). Andrew’s talent catches the ear of the school’s reining jazz God, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and he’s invited to join Fletcher’s studio band. Studio band is the school’s most prestigious—the one that wins competitions and makes or breaks careers. What follows is an emotional thriller that is as taut as the skin stretched over a drum.

 

It’s been twenty years since I’ve reacted so viscerally to a movie (The English Patient. It still destroys me. Oh, that movie.) At one point, I felt a hot, woozy wave wash over me and I feared I’d either faint or vomit. I dropped my feet from the seat—I’d been curled in a tight ball of tension—and slid them back into my tennis shoes, preparing to flee if need be. That’s how wrenched and gutted and caught up in this story I’d become.

 

It’s facile fun to get lost in a fast-paced nail-biter, to fall over the edge into a cliffhanger, yet I don’t read many thrillers. But that’s not what I’m talking about here—the power of Whiplash isn’t in hitting the conventional story arcs at the right times; it’s in the profound dynamic between Andrew and Fletcher, a story that shoves aside all unnecessary filler and fluff to drive right at the heart with searing emotion and at the intellect with questions of ethics and the cult of personality.

 

One theme: power. Arguably, how hard one is willing to work for a dream could be another, but I find that trite. This movie is about power. Two characters. A limited range of settings used to stunning effect. A tightly-plotted script. Realistic, unaffected, loose dialogue from one character; a calculated cascade of abuse or soothing manipulation from another. A story that is largely autobiographical, from a director and screenwriter working out his own rage and hurt. He isn’t showing us what he knows, Chazelle is showing us what he feels. He lets the characters work out what they know, or what they convince themselves of. A denouement that releases you into a false sense of relief, before electrifying you with an ending that offers both redemption and ambiguity. It is storytelling perfection.

 

As a viewer, I was captivated. Twisted into knots. Gutted. Exhausted. As a writer, I was all, THIS. THIS is how it’s done.

Grit. © Julie Christine Johnson 2015

 

 

9 thoughts on “Whiplash: The Power of Story

  1. I haven’t seen The English Patient in years, but it still haunts me. Your description of Whiplash has me searching for a theater—it sounds brilliant. Thank you for sharing this, Julie (and for the stunning photo, too—the lighting is magnificent!)

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    1. Candace, I tried to watch The English Patient a few years ago and I couldn’t. But I think I should give it another go. Whiplash is a completely different experience–it doesn’t have the romantic, epic sweep of wartime romance and that life and death intensity–but the power struggle between these two characters is epic enough. I was just so gobsmacked by the ART of it, how gosh dang well done the whole thing was. And so personal. Just so WOW.

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  2. Julie, You mentioned that you rarely see movies. That’s funny because since I have become a writer, I rarely watch movies too. It used to be that I didn’t like reading books and was consumed in watching tv and movies. Now, it’s the complete opposite. I’d rather read a book than watch a movie. I find myself impatient with movie plots not to mention that I feel restricted having to watch a story unfold that is prefabricated for my entertainment. I appreciate the poetic imagination and carefully chosen words that are used to craft a story that I interpret at my own pace. I like being in characters’ heads instead of seeing them walking around on a screen doing and saying stuff. Your review of Whiplash peeked my interest for the film. I will probably Netflix it when it’s available. As a writer, I read lots of books and I immerse myself in words and writing everyday so movies have lost the appeal for me. I am wondering if this is true for other writers? As we eat, drink, and breath words and let our imagination fill in the blanks, maybe the need to escape into film becomes less. I am just musing :).

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    1. Thank you for the wonderful comment! I’m crazy about movies–I go as often as I can afford to (and provided there’s something I want to see,! Fortunately, our wonderful theatre brings in all quality, lots of indies, foreign films, documentaries), but I agree with you–my patience and tolerance for silly plots, blockbusters, fluff, predictable plots is low to nil.

      “I appreciate the poetic imagination and carefully chosen words that are used to craft a story that I interpret at my own pace.” Yes! This is beautifully stated. I think films can teach us efficiency and economy in storytelling, but I love to linger as long as I need with a character, a turn of phrase, a twist of plot and only a book can over that pleasure.

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  3. My husband and I saw this a few weeks back and we absolutely loved it. After watching, we were telling anybody who would listen: Go see this. Just brilliant. And the music! I couldn’t get enough.

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    1. I can’t wait for my husband to see this. He’s had his own experience with a Terence Fletcher and it will be a hard, painful watch for him, but I recounted the entire move the moment he walked in the door (I WAS SO EXCITED), so he knows what’s coming. Oh God, the music. I know that was a lot of it for me. I love jazz-classic jazz-so so much.

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