Of all the films nominated for Best Picture, Whiplash was the film I wanted to see the most alongside Selma. Ever since it opened for the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, this film has been receiving endless appraisal and went onto win both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. After reading an article on Entertainment Weekly appraising it from the festival, I was interested in seeing it. After seeing a clip and a trailer, I really wanted to see it. And just days before the Oscars, it didn’t disappoint at all. I didn’t think I’d say thing for a movie about jazz drumming, but it has to be the most intense film I’ve ever seen in recent years.
At the Shaffer Music Academy, Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) longs to be one of the greatest jazz drummers in the business. He wants to rank amongst his idols Charlie Parker and Bob Ellis. He sees an opportunity when he attracts the ear of Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), who is considered the best conductor in the school. And his band is a sensation at regionals. He sees this as his chance to be amongst the greatest. But he has to compete with another more experienced drummer first.
This plot certainly sounds like a standard tale of a teacher inspiring a student to greatness. But what sets this film apart is the means the teacher uses to make to inspire his students to greatness. Fletcher expects his students to know every single note by heart and wants every note played to perfection. Pray for mercy for anyone who plays out of tune for he doesn’t mince words. He spews insults, threats and f-bombs like a sailor. In their first rehearsal, Fletcher throws a chair at Neyman and slaps him for rushing. Dead Poets Society, this is not.
Whenever Fletcher enters a scene, the world goes silent and so does the audience. Simmons is terrifying in this performance. He creates an indelible impression with his bullet bald head, all black wardrobe and veins running through his forehead. But this dog delivers a nasty bark, spewing creative insults as hurtful as they are hilarious. My personal favourite is “That’s not your boyfriend’s dick don’t come early.” At one point, he has Andrew and two other drummers play through bloody fingers until he can find the right player. He leaves a room silent just by holding his hand still, while the band waits for his cue. What makes him terrifying is his unpredictability. One minute, he is a total gentleman, calmly guiding his students, the next; he is reducing a trombone player to tears.
Despite his tyrannical tactics, writer-director Damien Chazelle and Simmons also gives Fletcher some humanity. He’s very nice to children. We see him play piano with friends. When a student dies, he does a speech honoring his memory. He believes pushing his students is the best way for them to reach their full potential. He gives us a full understanding of his philosophy in a speech about his longing to create the next Charlie Parker and why he feels the most harmful words in the English language is “Good Job”. It doesn’t excuse his behavior, but in an era that rewards kids to much for effort, he might have a point.
This only motivates Andrew to practice more. In fact, he seems just as obsessed with perfection as Fletcher. In the opening scene, it’s clear he has incredible skills as a drummer. But as he glides through the hallways unnoticed by a party, it’s clear he has not friends. The only people he hangs out with are his father (Paul Reiser) and Nicole (Melissa Benoist) a concession clerk he’s taking an interest in. But when he continues to play through bloody fingers, it’s clear his motivation has become an obsession. His obsession takes a disturbing level when he gets into a car accident and despite being badly injured, rushes to get to a concert on time. Even Fletcher had to stop him when he sees how bad the injuries are. Keep in mind, no one’s twisting Andrew’s arm to rehearse as much as he dies.
Through Andrew’s relationship with his father Jim, Chazelle questions the need for greatness and perfection. Having a failed career and his wife run out on him, Jim is regarded as a failure in Andrew’s eyes. And yet through years of earned wisdom, Jim is content being a teacher. Andrew has pictures of Charlie Parker on his wall, but Jim points out he was an addict who died at age 34. This conflict comes to a head in one dinner scene with other family members.
Halfway through the film, the film takes an unexpected turn that forces Andrew to ask where his values lie. And it leads to one of the best endings of all the best picture nominees.
The true strength of this film is that while most films ask how far you would go to be the greatest, Chazelle asks how far SHOULD you go. Throughout the film, Fletcher pushes his students to their limits, and yet he gets results. It leaves the audience if the ends justify the means for greatness. With all of these elements, Whiplash brings audience a fast-paced psychological thriller that won’t leave your mind after seeing it.