Anyone who has ever been in a band or orchestra has had ‘that conductor.’ The conductor who gets up in your face and screams. The teacher who berates and curses you. The perfectionist who pushes you to the brink of your sanity with the incessant demanding.
Whiplash is all about that teacher. His name is Fletcher, played by Oscar-winning actor J.K. Simmons, and his pupil, Andrew (Miles Teller), has no idea what he is up against. Andrew wants to be one of the greats, a jazz drummer. Accepted into a prestigious music conservatory, Fletcher finds him and recruits him to his own personal class. He then proceeds to break the boy down piece by piece.
“My tempo! My tempo!” he cries as the chairs go flying.
He slaps Andrew in the face, pushing him to play on and on until his drumming hands are coarse with blood. He gets into his head, screaming at him, calling his father a wash-out writer and his own future a joke.
And rather than quit and give up on the dream, Andrew pushes himself harder and harder, past the breaking point.
The film is a classic example of an unstoppable force versus an immovable object. Fletcher’s demands are so unreasonable that it is impossible to meet them, while Andrew’s determination to be the best can not be matched. Who will win? The viewer ends up asking themselves if both characters are simply crazy, but at the same point in time, is that craziness good or bad?
Fletcher relates a story repeatedly throughout the film of Charlie Parker and how his drummer, Jo Jones, once threw a cymbal at his head after he screwed up during a piece. Terrified, Parker would practice for hours on end until he became one of the all-time greats. Do we condemn Jones, and in essence Fletcher, therefore for being excessively harsh, or is that simply the way that you create great art?
The film wrestles with this question as Andrew’s family begs him to stop for his own well-being while he pushes himself past the limits most of us would dare go. Fletcher tells him he is sick and tired of the “everyone gets a trophy” mentality, and that the worst words in the English language are “good job.”
Would Parker have become one of the greats if he wasn’t pushed past his limits? Is greatness something that can be squeezed out of someone, something they couldn’t find without that temperament?
J.K. Simmons is fantastic in the career-defining role of Fletcher, and Teller similarly deserves kudos for matching the intensity of Simmons. The film focuses nearly exclusively on them, and we are placed right in the crux of the action. The editing, sound and cinematography are all top notch and really add to the battlefield-like atmosphere the film presents, a tribute to writer-director Damien Chazalle’s vision (he had previously made a short film of the story to build up funding for a feature).
The film falls into unbelievability in several instances though, such as when Andrew gets into a car accident and keeps going. It keeps things from being taken too seriously by going to the extreme and diminishes some of the film’s power.
Rather than just being a story about teacher and pupil, this is a film about the ethics of teaching and the duties of students, an examination of a “world gone soft” and a question of how one achieves greatness. It gives us so much more than most films ever try to achieve.