There's a scene in Whiplash where Andrew, the would-be drummer who is the film's central character, gives a speech about how desperate he is to achieve greatness. And while he was talking I kept thinking about the Guinness Book of World Records - but not in the way that Andrew would have liked.
You see, I have very mixed feelings about the Guinness Book of World Records. On the one hand, it documents a lot of very impressive accomplishments. It was designed to immortalize the strongest, the fastest, and the toughest, and it definitely does that. On the other hand, it also documents a lot of feats that are... more underwhelming. For example, I don't think the hard part about building the world's biggest rubber band ball or riding a pogo stick for longer than anyone else is actually accomplishing that feat - it's thinking of that feat as a notable achievement in the first place. Of course somebody has ridden a pogo stick longer than anyone else; that's an automatic byproduct of the pogo stick existing. However, it takes a special type of person to think "I can do this dumb thing more than anyone else" and then to record their time and then to submit their verified result to an actual record book because they're proud to have beaten everyone else in a competition that only exists in their own mind.
Whiplash is all about Andrew's very determined attempts to be the best jazz drummer in the world. Although I personally can't stand most jazz I can easily admit that trying to be a polished musician in any genre is a pretty noble goal. The problem is that Andrew doesn't just want to be the best - he also wants to be the most famous, and that's crazy. At one point in his spiel about greatness he tells his father that he would rather be a broke junkie who dies at 30 like his idols than be happy at 90 like a schmuck - but that's a false equivalency. It's probably been sixty years since there's been a jazz musician who became culturally iconic - and that isn't because jazz musicians became less talented over the years, it's because people stopped caring about jazz, even if it was made by tortured geniuses. He isn't going to live up to the standard set by his idols because they lived when being good at jazz was like setting a new time in a marathon and he lives at a time when it's like owning the world's biggest collection of belt buckles.
Someone needs to tell Andrew that not all accomplishments are equally impressive.
I'm not just letting my personal disinterest in jazz color my perception about the movie - I think the movie's laserlike focus on jazz drumming actually presents it with a structural problem. If a movie about a driven loner is going to work, there has to be absolutely no disconnect between that character and the audience; we have to be completely in their head. Whiplash certainly tries to do that, because it is exclusively focused on Andrew and his limited perspective. (It is also in large part about his combative relationship with his teacher, but we only see his teacher when he's teaching Andrew how to drum, so that still counts.) I don't think there's a single scene that's not about Andrew and about how he lives, breathes and nearly dies for his music. (There's a scene where Andrew walks away from a nearly fatal car-crash without even bothering to exchange insurance information because he's in such a hurry to get to a recital.) The problem is that his particular taste in music created a disconnect between me and the movie; I just couldn't hear what he hears in those songs, and every additional drumming scene brought me less and less new insight into what made him tick. At a certain point I got that he likes this specific type of music and then after that I was just stuck listening to a bunch of songs I didn't like.
I can understand why Whiplash made the choice to be so aggressively drum-centric. In general an audience doesn't have to share the same level of enthusiasm for a character's obsession for a story about them and their obsession to work; all that matters is that the character believes in it enough that they are willing to do the work that will drive the story forward. But Whiplash is a bit of a special case, because the audience interacts with Andrew's music in a way that's very different from the way we interact with, say, the heroin junkies' addiction in Trainspotting. When Renton and Sickboy were desperately hunting for a fix we weren't actually subjected to the same withdrawal symptoms they were and that makes it possible for us to have separate feelings about them as people and heroin as a general concept. However, there's no way to show how Andrew is obsessed with music without actually make us listen to his music, and that means that we have to start judging him by what he's playing. (Which, honestly, is how Andrew would want it.) That means that as it becomes obvious that he isn't going to grow, that he is going to continue to try to use his music to try to reach an unreachable goal, he becomes a less interesting character and the story starts to become more and more listless. Andrew devoted himself to the wrong art, and thus when the movie devoted itself to Andrew it, too, chose poorly.
Whiplash certainly has it's compelling moments. It's well edited and well performed. I'm glad to say that the script doesn't hit all of the usual cliches you would expect from a movie about a tortured genius, which is good. But Whiplash also has all of it's eggs in one basket, and the extent to which you like this movie really depends on what you think about that basket. If you respect jazz drummers as much as you respect, say, the record holder for the world's heaviest aircraft pulled by a man then you'll probably be able to get invested in this movie. But if you're like me and you see jazz drumming as an "I guess you could do that" feat like owning more Star Wars crap than anyone else - well, then maybe this movie isn't for you.