There have been a lot of films which focus on a teacher/student dynamic, with the brilliant, inspiring teacher doing everything they can to help bring out the hidden potential in their young proteges. Movies like Dead Poets Society and The History Boys tend to focus on unconventional, eccentric teachers who don’t stick to the established curriculum and inspire affection and devotion among their students with their methods. Whiplash is not one of those sorts of films.
J.K. Simmons stars as Terence Fletcher, the conductor of the highest-profile jazz band at the best music school in America. Miles Teller co-stars as Andrew Neiman, a drummer who is drafted into Fletcher’s band after Fletcher sees him practising. It turns out that “drafted” is the right word, since Fletcher has less in common Robin Williams’ “Captain”, and much more with the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket. Imagine him crossed with J. Jonah Jameson and you get the idea.
Fletcher is cruel, vindictive, manipulative and a perfectionist almost to the point of psychopathy: he will settle for nothing less than the very best his musicians are capable of at all times, and will do anything to extract their best from them – even if it means keeping them in the studio until 2am to make sure they get something right. He’s generous with abuse, both verbal and physical, and only gives praise when he’s certain that Andrew has given absolutely everything he has to give. It’s a phenomenal performance from Simmons, and considering how little insight the screenplay gives into Fletcher’s background and history, he’s had the opportunity to really get his teeth into the character and figure out what motivated him to be as he is.
Teller is excellent as well, though his is a much more subtle, restrained performance than Simmons’, who spends great stretches of the film apoplectic with rage. Neiman pours all of his passion and energy into his drumming, making him cold, distant and aloof from his family. The scene where he calmly and rationally explains to his girlfriend why they can no longer date is every bit as cruel as the many ones where Fletcher torments his band, but where Fletcher is all fury, Neiman is ice. Music is the only thing that matters, and the co-stars complement each other perfectly, reflecting the different ways that obsession can manifest itself.
That, more than anything else, is what Whiplash is about – obsession, the drive to be better than you think you can, whatever it takes. This desire for perfection above all else permeates the whole film, and it’s clear that director Damien Chazelle put as much work into moulding his second feature as Fletcher does in whipping his band into shape. A film about drumming ought not to be able to qualify as a thriller, but some of the set-pieces in this film are as tense as anything you’ll see all year. The editing during the musical performances is nothing short of sublime, and the finale recalls, of all things, the climactic showdown in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly with its almost dialogue-free storytelling driven entirely by music and editing. It’s a jazz concert which turns into one of the most expertly orchestrated “final battles” in recent memory, where the prize at stake is an acknowledgement from Fletcher of Neiman’s talent.
Indeed, Fletcher’s philosophy is that one must never acknowledge talent until it’s clear that the person in question has done everything they possibly can to earn that acknowledgement. To him, the most harmful words in the English language are “good job”, because they don’t encourage people to try and be better, and he believes that forcing people to be better than they think they can is “an absolute necessity”. So to that end: Whiplash is an astonishing film, a masterpiece perhaps, but let’s not praise it. Let’s not give it any awards, as much as it deserves them, so that Chazelle will be inspired to make an even better film next time.