If ever there was the Devil’s incarnate, it isn’t Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), he’s probably meaner and harder to nail down. In the world of musicians, there is no school more prestigious than Shaffer Conservatory in New York and that’s where young drumming prodigy Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) finds himself learning the ropes. Like most of the people there, music is his life and it’s what drives him. His dream is to be the next Buddy Rich. Most people don’t know who that is, but he does and that’s enough.
Nieman thinks he’s made the big time when he gets made the alternative drummer in the orchestra of conductor Terrence Fletcher, a man who seems strict, but still highly passionate about music. Andrew looks to prove himself and let his talent shine through.
He has no idea what he’s getting himself into. He watches with surprise as Fletcher tosses a member of his band out for being out of tune in a rehearsal of Whiplash. Except it was the other guy, but Fletcher feels it’s just as well since the guy didn’t know he wasn’t out of tune. Obviously, he was not a true musician.
Thus, Andrew gets a taste of this sadistic treatment all in the name of art and music. He gets a chair hurled at him. He gets repeatedly slapped for being off tempo. It becomes clear all too soon that Fletcher is a merciless two-faced monster who does everything in his power to improve HIS band at all costs. He never ceases berating, belittling, cursing like a sailor, name-calling, and inducing physical harm. He doesn’t care as long as it leads to results improving overall performance.
About this time Andrew awkwardly asks out the cute girl at the movie theater, and they share an awkward date at a 2nd rate pizza joint. It’s a cute beginning with some real promise. As far as family goes, his dad is a loving man, but Andrew has some real familial conflict with his relatives. They see his aspirations as small potatoes, and he, likewise, sees them as nobodies who are full of themselves. It’s mutual distaste.
Andrew’s education continues on an intense path when, by a fluke, he becomes core drummer. Fletcher also calls Andrew out saying he needs to practice harder, and it becomes a game of survival of the fittest. Kill or be killed. Dog eat dog. Fletcher has no sympathy or emotional attachment. All that matters is fielding the best band he can. He works his three drummers to the point of pure exhaustion, hands bleeding, drenched in sweat before Andrew finally gets the tempo right just to his liking.
He has his chance once more, but on the day of the big Jazz competition, Andrew runs into some roadblocks and since he is hardly capable of playing, Fletcher gives Andrew the boot. The enraged drummer tackles him to the floor. Days later he is expelled from Shaffer while a lawyer is also digging around about Fletcher’s conduct. Andrew reluctantly agrees to blow the whistle on him and he has to go from there.
By this point, the question must be asked. Who is truly insane here? Yes, Fletcher is a nightmare and a tyrant of epic proportions. But what drives someone to do what Andrew does? He drums until his fingers are so ripped up they bleed through bandages. He breaks up with his girlfriend Nicole, all in the name of progress in his career. Perhaps craziest of all, he continues to follow Fletcher until his expulsion. It got to the point that he was losing all touch with reality because drumming was everything. Completely blinded by obsession, spiraling further and further into the abyss that was consuming him.
In many ways, those two were made for each other, and one day they meet on the outside. Andrew no longer a student and Fletcher now fired from his position. Now they just want to play music for the sake of music. Fletcher needs a drummer for a jazz festival he is competing in and Andrew obliges because he cannot stay away from it forever. Of course, his nemesis pulls one last dirty trick, but it was out of this scheme that Andrew realizes himself as a true musical artist letting his hands lead him on an emotional Odyssey of snares and cymbals. For one instant he has Fletcher’s approval and the euphoria of the beats rushes over him. This is all he ever wanted.
Whiplash is a film that is squirm-inducing. Utterly painful and terrifying to watch, thanks in part to the performances of J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller. Teller is inherently likable and that’s what made his turn in the Spectacular Now (2013) so gratifying. His character Andrew is on the complete opposite side of the spectrum, however. He’s utterly friendless and singly-minded, geared towards one thing and one thing only. Teller proved that he could play this role, and it is purposely left ambiguous what happens next. He lost his girlfriend and he got expelled, but what are we supposed to feel for him? Pity, sadness or disapproval?
J.K. Simmons was just WOW… Director Damien Chazelle did a remarkable job and likewise the editing of Whiplash exquisitely fit the theme of drumming. It is completely on form with its frenetic fury to its merciless cutting. It will not give us a break or let us relax as an audience, underlying the generally insane tempo of this film. The name “Whiplash” from Hank Levy’s composition was perfect. Melodious but completely unnerving.