In "Whiplash," director Damien Chazelle spares no cliche of artistry. The result is an interesting film about jazz.
Professor Fletscher in "Whiplash" is less reminiscent of an art teacher than a drill sergeant. Image: 2014 Sony Pictures Releasing GmbH
"Art comes from skill," says the popular saying. "Art is beautiful, but makes a lot of work," says Karl Valentin. Two bon mots that are as stale and wrong as they are long-lived: The most recent example of the carefree survival of these notions of creative work is called "Whiplash."
The success of Damien Chazelle’s second feature film has not been diminished by the calendar-level message: It opened last year’s Sundance Film Festival in front of an enthusiastic audience, had its European premiere to equal acclaim in a sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival, and has even been nominated for five Oscars.
"Whiplash" is told from the perspective of 19-year-old Andrew. The ambitious drummer is studying at the renowned New York Schafer Conservatory of Music. One evening during one of his practice sessions, the equally feared and charismatic Professor Terence Fletscher shows up and invites him to join the rehearsals of his jazz orchestra. Andrew quickly rises from music page turner to first drummer – only to be demoted again soon. Fletscher runs a hard regiment.
Military vocabulary suits his teaching style: he is less reminiscent of an art teacher than of a drill sergeant in the U.S. Army – including homophobic insults and corporal punishment. The correct meter is sometimes practiced to the beat of whistles. Andrew is driven by a mixture of fear, defiance and wounded pride. He wants to show his teacher that he can meet his demands.
One thinks of competitive athletes
A psychological duel between two extremely stubborn people begins. The plot is reminiscent of films about competitive athletes: the inner swine must be overcome to reach the top. And "Whiplash" treats jazz like a sport. Just as Rocky in the film of the same name beats his fists bloody on pig halves, Andrew plays his hands into lumps of meat with his drumsticks.
"Whiplash." Directed by Damien Chazelle. With Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons. USA, 107 min.
Charlie Parker is repeatedly cited in "Whiplash" as a prime example of this ethos of the jazz musician working hard on himself. Of course, he was a virtuoso on the saxophone, but he would have become one of the many forgotten gifted musicians if, like Andrew, he had always diligently adhered to the prescribed standards.
Gravedigger of an art form
The decline of jazz in recent decades certainly has nothing to do with the fact that there are too few outstanding jazz musicians, but precisely because it has been made into an American high culture that can be "learned." Andrew’s cadaverous obedience to his teacher and to tradition makes him one of the gravediggers of this once relevant art form.
To put it another way: Art comes no more from skill than it does from not being able. At best, skill can help to implement ideas. It doesn’t have to take much work – is a novel automatically better than a poem? Good art does not know any diligence cards. Good art is unfair. Good art creates its own rules and thus always eludes definition. Anyone who hasn’t understood this would be better off making sports films.