Cast: Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle
Pursuing a dream is often difficult. One could argue that everyone would do it if it were easy. It requires patience, determination and passion. Even then a dream can often prove to be unattainable. Other times it can consume you and turn into an obsession. Some people can chase their dreams so fervently that they lose sight of all else and end up destroying themselves. This is the central theme of Whiplash, a film about a young man’s compulsive quest for perfection and greatness and the sufferings, inflicted both by himself and by his teacher, he undergoes in order to achieve his dream.
The film opens with Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a talented jazz drummer enrolled at one of the best music schools in the country, practising on the drums. Andrew is an ambitious young man who emulates the big names of jazz music, including Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker, and aspires to one day join their ranks as one of the greats. He stops playing when he notices that one of the school’s music maestros, the jazz conductor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), is listening in. Fletcher puts Andrew on the spot, asking him confrontational questions and giving him a complex drum beat to play, before leaving in the middle without another word. After a second audition, which takes place when Fletcher spontaneously walks into his class and asks each student in turn to play him a couple of bars, he makes Andrew the new alternate drummer in his band.
Simmons gives a powerhouse performance as Fletcher, a musical genius with psychopathic methods who demands perfection and nothing less. He proves to be a teacher with a sadistic temperament who verbally abuses his students for the slightest offences. It is startling to see him casually talking to Andrew with a calm and kindly demeanour when only a few minutes ago we saw him reduce one of his musicians to tears and kick him out of the band for playing out of tune. When he asks Andrew about his parents, one wonders if he is genuinely trying to be friendly or if he is simply looking for ammunition that he can use against him. He assures Andrew not to be too worried about getting the music right only to fling a chair at him moments later for not keeping tempo. He goes further to strike Andrew repeatedly and brutally insults him using his recently acquired knowledge of Andrew’s family as the rest of the class watches in grave silence.
Following this first session Andrew becomes utterly determined to improve his technique and to prove himself to Fletcher. He furiously practices on the drums for hours on end until his hands bleed. Wanting to save himself from any distraction or future difficulties, he pre-emptively breaks up with his girlfriend so that she won’t divert any of his time or attention from becoming a great drummer. Yet in session after session he continuously fails to impress Fletcher who unrelentingly berates him for not being good enough. During a jazz competition when Andrew loses the drummer’s notations he rises to the challenge by performing Hank Levy’s ‘Whiplash’ from memory, earning himself the post of the main drummer. Believing that he has finally proven himself to Fletcher, his pride is short-lived as Fletcher brings another drummer into the band. Fletcher then maliciously pits his drummers against each other in an intense sequence where all three drummers play themselves through blood, toil, sweat, and tears as they try to earn the right to perform the double-time swing in the song ‘Caravan’.
The conflict between Andrew and Fletcher throughout this film is harrowing to behold as Andrew undergoes a disturbing transformation. He goes from being a quiet, mild-mannered boy, frequently spending his afternoons with his father and too shy to ask out the pretty girl who works at the cinema, to an aggressive, wrathful man who scorns his family for failing to appreciate how talented he is and who pushes himself to extreme lengths in order to be the best. He pursues a path of desolation and self-destruction, all the while with Fletcher’s merciless attacks provoking him even further.
Fletcher might have easily turned out to be a caricature of a character (not unlike J. Jonah Jameson in the Spiderman films) if not for the depth he is given. In one of the most striking scenes in the film, Fletcher comes to a session with a mournful look on his face. He asks his band to listen to a piece of music and after a moment reveals that the musician they are listening to is a former student of his who recently died in an accident. He praises his late-student as a “beautiful player” before bursting into tears. It is astonishing to see a man who has performed such heinous acts over the course of the film show such sensitivity. Knowing what we know about him, one starts to wonder whether his outburst is motivated by grief or by guilt.
As Andrew pursues his destructive ambitions, the film raises the question of how far one should go when pursuing their dreams and whether there’s even such a thing as going too far. A recurring story that Fletcher tells to justify his actions recalls an incident where Jo Jones threw a cymbal at a young Charlie Parker’s head for failing to keep the tempo during a concert, an incident that motivated Parker to practice obsessively until he delivered the iconic performance that made him the jazz legend that he is today. This story is used as an incentive for Andrew to endure all the trials and tribulations that are thrown at him because they are what it takes for someone like him to be a great musician. Yet as Andrew pushes himself further and further and becomes more volatile, we the audience are unsure whether or not he will even survive this ordeal. The result is a truly astonishing film with an explosive finale that leaves you hanging on the edge of your seat.