What are true motivations for success? Money? Career? Fame? Self-respect? Pride? Fear? What motivates an athlete to push him or herself through the pain? What motivates an actor to keep going if they continue to get rejected, time and time again? We all remember the opening of the TV show Fame, right? Debbie Allen’s famously motivational words to her students at the School of the Arts, as they are grinding through her tough dance class: “You got big dreams? You want fame? Well, fame costs. And right here’s where you start paying….in SWEAT!” (See it here.)
When it comes to pop culture, we have seen this time and time again. From Rudy doing everything he has to to make it onto the Notre Dame football field, to Nina Sayers getting her chance to play the Swan Queen in Swan Lake to, well, everyone doing everything to get the part in A Chorus Line. Following your passion can be brutal, especially in the arts, when it’s not just your body that takes the pounding, but your soul as well. The latest movie to explore the theme of “how much will you give for your art?” is Whiplash, from writer/director Damien Chazelle, and stars Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.
Whiplash is about a drumming prodigy, played by Teller, and his hard-nosed, often brutal music teacher, played by Simmons, who’s teaching methods are intimidation, fear and flat-out cold-hearted, calculated manipulation. He pushes his students beyond any point of believable pain and acceptable injury (this is supposed to be going on in the top music school in the country) and every student (all male) cowers and seemingly even winces in his presence. We get it. The guy is a hardass. But this is not the military and this is not prison. This is a school and these are musicians. These methods would never fly and would never work. There’s dramatic license and then there’s the point of incredulity and then there is the abyss.
However, I have always said that I could watch J.K. Simmons read the phone book and it would be entertaining and it looks like I was right because Whiplash is still worth talking about because and only because of Simmons’ airtight and rock-hard performance that is viciously brilliant. Unfortunately, Teller cannot hold a candle to Simmons in the acting department and the character he plays is equally loathesome, so you end up wondering who to even root for.
So, in the end, you sit back and just enjoy the soundtrack and the killer drumming sequences, which are pretty jaw-dropping. But nothing can overcome the unbelievable script, unlikeable characters you don’t care about and the lack of any real emotion in a movie that features a soundtrack full of music meant to express nothing but emotion.
If only Whiplash had been more about the true motivations of success and less about the blood and sweat of it all, that would’ve lived forever.