Movie Review: Whiplash
There are no two words in the English language more harmful that good job.
One of the year’s biggest surprises has to be Whiplash. You think a movie about a jazz drumming student and his teacher wouldn’t be one to win people over but you’ll have to see it for yourself.
Andrew Neiman is a 19 year-old jazz drummer who has been accepted into the Shaffer Conservatory to pursue his dream of being one of the greats like Buddy Rich. Despite practicing long hours, he does take time to take things easy watching movies with his father and even dating the girl working at concessions.
That all changes one day when during class, instructor Terence Fletcher who already has an infamous reputation among students substitutes for one instructor. It’s more than instruction as Fletcher is looking for a new drum alternate for the school band he conducts. Sure enough, Andrew catches his eye. Actually Andrew caught his eye days before while practicing alone.
On the first session, Neiman learns that part of Fletcher’s rehearsal methods is manipulating emotions out of his students. It is while rehearsing the Hank Levy song ‘Whiplash’ that Fletcher makes Andrew his target of attacks including berating him verbally especially when Andrew is brought to tears, throwing a chair at him and even slapping him for going off tempo. The rehearsal ends with Andrew being the alternate drummer and relegated to page turner for the lead drummer.
Instead of quitting, Andrew is determined to win over Fletcher and master ‘Whiplash.’ He listens intensely to its drumline and studies videoclips of the drummers. He even cuts his movie time with his father and breaks up with Nicole to intensely pursue his ambition. Then bad luck happens during a competition when Andrew misplaces the drummer’s sheet music. However Andrew is determined to perform ‘Whiplash’ without the notes. To the astonishment of all including Fletcher, he does it perfectly and becomes Fletcher’s new lead drummer.
However it’s short-lived as Ryan a drummer from Fletcher’s former class, is promoted to lead drummer. Andrew is frustrated to the point he confronts Fletcher only to learn Fletcher decides who has earned the part. That only drives Andrew to practice intensely to the point his hands bleed. Just before Fletcher starts rehearsal one day in tears, he reveals to all that one of his former students from six years ago Sean Casey, whom he describes as a ‘marvelous musician,’ died in a car accident. He starts rehearsal on ‘Caravan’, the next competition piece, but has a hard time picking out the right drummer for the song. Fletcher gets all three drummers including Andrew continually trying out the piece for several brutal hours until he makes his final decision at 2:30 am. He decides it to be Andrew.
Andrew buses to the competition but the bus suffers a flat tire. Andrew’s determined to be there on time to the point he rents a car but forgets his drumsticks at the rental office. Andrew only finds that out once he arrives and Fletcher dismisses him for not having his drumsticks. Determined to play, Andrew rushed back to the agency to get the sticks. Speeding to the concert hall and talking to Fletcher on his phone, Andrew is hit by a car. Despite the car flipping over and Andrew bloody and injured, Andrew rushes to the hall to play. A stunned Fletcher lets him play but it’s obvious Andrew is off as his injuries cause him to drop his drumsticks continuously. Fletcher gives him the words onstage: “You’re finished.” That causes Andrew to attack Fletcher onstage in front of the audience.
The attack caused Andrew to get expelled form the school. Soon Andrew learns from the lawyer of Sean Casey’s parents that Casey actually committed suicide and believes it was because of the personal torment endured by Fletcher’s teaching methods right from when he first started. Andrew agrees to testify, leading Fletcher to be dismissed from the school. Just when it seemed to be all over for Andrew, he learns months later Fletcher is performing in a club. Andrew and Fletcher meet up again and it’s during a drink together that Andrew learns why Fletcher teaches the way he does. Because he drives his students to be the next jazz great. And he saw it in Andrew more than the other two. Fletcher agrees to have Andrew as part of the band he’s conducting for the upcoming JVC festival where they will be playing the same songs. Andrew agrees. However things do not go as planned as Fletcher tells Andrew he knew he got him out. On top of it, the band opens with a piece Andrew never rehearsed. This leads to an ending that’s unpredictable and entertaining.
One can simply say it’s a story about a student with the drive and the teacher determined to make him succeed no matter how soul-crushing his teaching methods. I myself saw a lot more to it. I see it as about music and arts in general. We see and hear a lot of great pieces of music, great acting performances and great pieces of art. One thing we don’t often see is that it takes everything out of a person, especially their heart and soul. We also see that here in teaching as Fletcher verbally beats his students into the ground to bring out the best in them. He feels he’s doing the right thing even as he was blamed for Sean Casey’s suicide. He even brings up the example of Charlie Parker who was a substandard saxophone player until his bandleader threw a cymbal at his head. That was the turning point. I myself have taken acting courses and there have been times in which I was encouraged to dig deep into my soul even to the point of remembering some of the more upsetting moments of my life. It’s not uncommon for teacher sin the art to be that tyrannical to their students to bring out the best in them.
It’s not just about a teacher putting his students through such agonizing torturous methods to better his students and bring the best out of them. It’s also about the drive of a student. Andrew is determined to be the best drummer ever. In his mind, he thinks it’s better to be a success even if it means dying in his 30’s and having no friends than it is to be not so successful but live a long life and be beloved. Andrew is willing to practice drumming until his hands bleed, willing to give up his girlfriend and even determined to make a competition even if he’s in a car accident and the car flips over. The crazy thing is that there are a lot of people in the arts that feel that same way. That success in their art is better than being loved and even worth dying for. We see that in Andrew.
Even there, it’s not just about the teacher and about the student, it’s the relationship between the two. Fletcher can be brutal and abusive both verbally and physically but he pushes Andrew because he sees a quality in him he has not seen in a student before. Andrew is driven to succeed but he sees something in Fletcher’s tutelage that he feels he can’t get anywhere else. He senses Fletcher and only Fletcher can help him to be the best jazz drummer ever. And he’s willing to take it on even with the physical, verbal and emotional abuse. Even after both Andrew and Fletcher are both dismissed from Shaffer, Andrew still relies on Fletcher’s judgment on his abilities. Often Fletcher’s teaching and pushing Andrew can remind a lot of people of sports coaches who are that tough on their athletes but are determined to bring out the best in them. Andrew willing to endure it all to be the great he wants to be will remind you of athletes who wholeheartedly trust their coach to the point that they’ll willing to do illegal things like steroids upon their urging.
Without a doubt, J.K. Simmons owned the movie. His portrayal of Fletcher determined to bring out the best in his students even if it requires him to deliver physical or verbal abuse stole the movie. His focus on perfectionism, his love for jazz music and the greats, his portrayal of that kind of teacher will keep you glued to your seat. Even though Simmons owned the film, credit should be given to Miles Teller. He as well delivered an excellent performance of a student with a dream and determined to succeed even if it means taking physical abuse from a teacher. He also did an excellent job of showing how Andrew’s determination to succeed almost destroys him at times. Miles himself also drummed as a kid so it’s kind of natural he was chosen. Plus if director Damien Chazelle was interested in making his film bankable, he could have chosen Nick Jonas as Andrew. Miles was one who could both drum and act.
The film is actually the brainchild of director/writer Damien Chazelle. Chazelle wanted to become a successful jazz drummer in high school. He was in a very competitive jazz band in high school and had an intense music teacher who would become the inspiration of Terence Fletcher. However unlike Andrew, Chazelle knew he wasn’t good enough to excel in jazz drumming and turned to film making instead. You could rightfully call this film his baby. This film has won the Sundance Audience and Jury Award for Best Drama and the reception has been excellent.
Whiplash is as much about the punishing training and studying music students go through to pursue their dreams as it is about the determined teacher, the driven student and the turbulent but solid chemistry between the two. It will also remind all you young ones with musical dreams that if you think chasing your musical dreams is a cakewalk, you couldn’t be wronger.