Call it Rocky with snare drums. Call it Full Metal Hi-Hat. Call it Fame with a beat.
That said, coming up second in that regard isn’t exactly something to be ashamed of.
Whiplash stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neyman, a 19-year old whose big dreams of becoming a great jazz drummer lead him to attend the Manhattan-based Shaffer Conservatory, which is generally considered one of the best music schools in the U.S. Hence when Andrew, a first-year student, is selected by Shaffer’s top instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) as a new drum alternate for Fletcher’s band, the young musician is both in awe and terrified at the same time.
However, Andrew quickly learns that Fletcher’s quest for perfection knows no bounds, nor does his willingness to emotionally, verbally, and sometimes even physically abuse his students until they achieve greatness. Andrew pushes himself to extremes in order to meet Fletcher’s high standards, but it soon becomes hard to tell if Fletcher is trying to launch Andrew into the stratosphere or get him to burn up during takeoff.
Miles Teller does the best work of his young career here as Andrew, finding the perfect blend of insecurity and confidence that comes entangled in the core of a young talent. Andrew is naturally apprehensive, but he also knows he has a drive, a passion, a skill that is unique. Teller walks that line, never faltering by making Andrew too confident while also carefully letting viewers see the spark within that Fletcher fuels.
As for Simmons, Fletcher could have been such a parody in the wrong actor’s hands. An over-the-top, abusive teacher is a part riddled with pitfalls. Simmons falls into none of them. He walks such a line that, even after the kind of inhumane mind games and physical abuse that should produce legal charges has unfolded on screen, we find ourselves drawn to Fletcher. He’s not 100% wrong when he says that the most dangerous two words in the English language are “good job.” Whether you think it’s the right approach or not, we’re in an era of praise, where encouragement is the teaching tool and every kid gets a medal for participation. Have true talents been left to wither because they were over-watered? Simmons perfectly captures the drive of a man who believes his abusive degree of pressure is the only way to produce a diamond.
Whiplash could easily have seemed ridiculous. Fletcher’s abusive behaviour is for far beyond the pale that it is unthinkable either his students or the school authorities would tolerate it. Chazelle’s attitude toward creativity is romanticised. He peddles old clichés about the links between genius and suffering. The film portrays jazz musicians as strangely docile, compliant figures without the ability to improvise. The title itself (which refers both to a piece of music that is constantly played and to the car crash-like trauma that Fletcher’s students suffer) feels contrived.
What gives the film such a kick, in spite of its improbabilities, is its raw and brutal but also very subtle portrayal of the shifting, attritional relations between teacher and student, sorcerer and apprentice. Chazelle leaves it up to us to decide whether this relationship between pupil and teacher is destructive or inspirational. Depending on your vantage point, the film either endorses the 10,000 hour theory or demolishes it. What is clear is that in telling the story of the teacher and his pupil, Chazelle had driven himself to make a film that is dynamic, provocative and moving – and in which the emotional tempo never stops rising.