It’s interesting to watch Whiplash again after La La Land fever (and anti-La La Land fever) happened in 2017/early in 2017. Damien Chazelle will be better known now for La La Land as it was the movie that won him an Oscar and for a few brief moments, the movie that won Best Picture. But La La Land wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for Whiplash, a full-length feature adapted from a short that became the toast of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and a Best Picture nominee in 2015.
While La La Land slightly diminishes with age, each viewing a still magical but slightly less entrancing viewing than the first, Whiplash only gets better. It’s a powerful testament and warning to achieving artistic perfection, how being the best-of-the-best at something makes you truly immortal but also completely alone. It’s sweaty and stinky, each tap-tap-tap of the drum echoed through blood and broken bone. But it looks damn fantastic, each shot perfectly framed, each pulsating vein of J.K. Simmons’ head or Miles Teller’s near-fractured hand pushing further and further to movie perfection.
It’s hard to tell if director Damien Chazelle is endorsing the relentless pursuit of best-dom or if he’s arguing against it, how being remembered by millions of anonymous fans throughout the decades isn’t nearly as important as being cherished by the ones who stand closest to you. By the end of the film, Teller’s character has lost everyone, including his dad who served at his side through thick and thin, supporting his son through his studies and through his battle with Simmons. But at the film’s close, the dad can only watch from a distance, his son transformed into legendary status, having ignored his offers of help and love and support for the shot at perfection.
But the most interesting relationship of the film isn’t between Teller and his character’s dad, played by Paul Reiser. Instead, its with Teller and Simmons, the abusive mentor/mentoree relationship that serves as the rhythmic backbone of the film. Teller doesn’t particularly like Simmons, nor does he respect him. But he does admire him in his aim not to compromise to anyone’s aim except his own. Teller’s goal is to be the best, while Simmons’ is to find and shape the best. It isn’t respect, as that involves seeing the other as their equal, which Teller and Simmons really don’t have the capability of doing. But it is admiration, both looking at the other from afar, seeing their goals and their respective ways of achieving them, and nodding in approval. They may not respect the particular ways they have of achieving them, but they admire the fact that they are uncompromising in those endeavors.
I hope that Chazelle in his later films explores topics beyond jazz, not because jazz is boring or because Chazelle is bad at portraying it on-screen, but because he’s in dangerous territory of being labeled as a filmmaker who only cares about one particular topic or subject. I laughed a bit when the line “jazz is dying” showed up in this film just like it did in La La Land. And ultimately Chazelle is an artist and can make whatever type of movie he wants to make, but if he continues to focus on jazz, he’ll be typecast as the jazz director guy and nobody will take his movies seriously anymore. That’d be a true tragedy since he’s a director who has a truly powerful story to tell.