A Look at Whiplash

I hope that all aspiring musicians don’t go through this sort of treatment.

Whiplash- Poster

But then, if they did, the quality of music would probably increase, if this movie is any indication. Whiplash is a strong film about an aspiring musician who strives for greatness. He’s pitted against a well known instructor that doesn’t give you a gold star or smiley face just because you performed the way he wanted you to.

He doesn’t applaud because you did a good job. He will break you, but the question is whether you walk away or dust yourself off and keep on trying. This is Whiplash.

Whiplash- Andrew plays, but realizes he's being watched

The film begins with a slow pan down an empty hallway as we watch a young man play away on a drum set. This young man is Andrew, played by Miles Teller, and he continues to practice until he stops. He looks up and notices that he is being watched.

Standing across from Andrew is Terrence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons. Rather than be impressed, Fletcher asks why Andrew stopped playing. Miles responds by playing some more, but Fletcher asked him a question, not to respond like a wind-up monkey. Fletcher then tells Andrew to play in double time, and Andrew does, but when he looks up, Fletcher is long gone.

Andrew is a first year student at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music. When he’s not trying to be the next Charlie Parker, Andrew spends his time at the cinema with his father, Jim, played by Paul Reiser, and eats around the raisinettes that he intentionally puts in their tub of popcorn. Andrew mentions to his father that Fletcher saw him. While Jim is supportive, he lets his son know that he still has options.

The next day, Andrew goes through the motions of his practice session with one group. He comes off as a loner, to be honest. When he leaves the classroom, he walks past another where he sees Fletcher directing a band.

Later that day, Andrew practices and pushes himself as far as he feels he can go. That ends up paying off the next day when Fletcher enters the class Andrew attends. Despite the instructor being there, Fletcher takes over. Well, there’s something I haven’t seen before. Fletcher tests various members of the band and correctly that the female first chair is only in the seat because of her looks. He works his way to the two drummers and is so impressed with what he hears that he tells the drummer, being Andrew, to follow him. First practice is in Room B16 at 6 a.m.

With a sudden rush of confidence, Andrew heads back to the cinema and asks out an employee he’s seen many times: Nicole, played by Melissa Benoist.

But when Andrew wakes up the next morning, he sees that his clock reads 6:03 a.m. He rushes to the classroom as fast as his legs will take him. He arrives at the classroom and finds it empty. In fact, he checks the schedule and soon learns that rehearsals don’t begin until 9 a.m. Well, at least he’s early. As the clock approaches nine, students file in and prepare themselves. Andrew, as the new drum alternate, is only there now to turn the pages for the core drummer.

Fletcher enters and the room hushes. Here, we see just how much of a presence Fletcher holds when he walks in and, without saying a word, has the band start and stop on command. They’re to practice a piece called “Whiplash.” But when the band begins, Fletcher stops the session. Someone is out of tune. No one rushes to identify themselves, though, so it’s up to Fletcher to go, one-by-one, and find out who is deliberately trying to sabotage his performance.

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He works his way to one particular student and fingers him as the culprit. When asked if he thinks he was out of tune, the student responds that he believes so, prompting Fletcher to yell at him for not saying so earlier. The student leaves. Only after this do we learn that the student Fletcher dismissed was not out of tune. The real culprit remains, but the difference is that the student who was out of tune knew he was, but didn’t say anything. The student dismissed didn’t know.

Fletcher speaks to Andrew in private to learn more about the new student. Andrew’s father is a less than successful writer and currently works as a high school teacher. His mom? She left. There’s not a single musician in Andrew’s family, but Andrew still loves to play and listen. So then, Fletcher advises Andrew to just relax and not focus on everyone else in the room. After all, Andrew is there for a reason, so he should have fun.

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Words cannot describe how tense folks in the cinema were as we watched the following scene play out. So it’s Andrew’s turn to show Fletcher what he’s capable of. He starts to drum a bit, but Fletcher immediately stops him. Not his tempo. All right, no problem. Andrew’s just getting used to the new environment and he’ll need to adjust. Easy. He tries again, but Fletcher stops him. This time, he says that Andrew is rushing. Again. Stop. Andrew is dragging.

The game of stop and go continues until Fletcher eventually hurls a chair right at Andrew! Andrew does dodge the chair, but he can’t get away when Fletcher gets right in his face and asks him one simple question: is he rushing or dragging? He then slaps Andrew hard and several times. Oh, but Fletcher isn’t done yet. He throws Andrew’s family history right back at him while berating his ability to play. Andrew sheds a tear, which doesn’t do him any more favors. Fletcher pounces, telling Andrew to say over and over each time that he’s upset.

Let’s take a minute to exhale.

Following this tense exchange, Andrew ignores a phone call from his father. Instead, he prints the composition to “Whiplash” and practices it so much that his palms bleed.

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Andrew gets a bit of rest on his date with Nicole, but he’s more focused on the music playing in the background than the woman in front of him. He eventually opens up, as we learn that he has trouble making eye contact. Nicole’s story? She currently attends Fordham University, but doesn’t know her major yet. That and she occasionally gets homesick. Andrew is at Shaffer because he believes it’s the best musical school in the country.

The time has arrived for a competition: the Overbrook Jazz Competition, to be specific. As the band prepares, the main drummer hands Andrew his folder to hold for a moment. So what does Andrew do? He sets the folder down for a few seconds to get a soda. In the span of a few seconds, the folder is now gone. The main drummer rages at Andrew to find it, but there’s no time. Andrew and the main drummer make their way toward Fletcher and the rest of the band. Even though the folder is missing, Fletcher blames the main drummer for even handing over the folder in the first place. There is a silver lining: Andrew offers to play because he knows the composition by heart. He proves this by practicing the composition. Then and there, Andrew is bumped up to the main seat. Come next practice after the competition, Andrew is Fletcher’s core drummer.

So, looks like smooth sailing for Andrew. Maybe. We’ll hold it there.

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Whiplash is one of the more visceral films I have seen this year, and much of that comes not just from the performances, but Damien Chazelle’s direction and writing that do a good job of building tension and giving us effective payoffs. I love the way the film is shot, and that’s a combination of effort from Chazelle, as well as cinematographer Sharone Meir and editor Tom Cross. We’re put right next to these aspiring musicians and watch their every move. There are a lot of close-up shots of fingers working their way along instruments the way they would caress a lover’s arm. We actually witness blood, sweat and tears stain musical instruments not for show, but because of the endless drive to push beyond limitation. And, of course, the soundtrack is very catchy and had me tapping my feet at times. I got a very big Cowboy Bebop vibe at times when listening to the music.

Whiplash- Blood on the drums

And therein lies one of the central messages of the film and one that I’m certain can lead to great conversation. At one point in the film, Fletcher tells Andrew that there are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’ Not everyone is a winner, contrary to what you’d find with teachers telling students that everyone is a winner and that there are no losers. People are too protected and coddled from failure because we want to believe that we are invincible. Fletcher looks for potential and has no regrets about his methods because his desire is to bring out the next Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker. That won’t be achieved if every student who screws up just gets a pass and is told that they did a good job. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom in order to realize that the journey up is longer and harder than we thought.  If you draw blood on the way, the journey is still worth it.

Whiplash- Fletcher hovers over Andrew

Do the ends justify the means? I doubt someone like Fletcher could exist in real life and get away with what he does to these students. We know that he’s been working with students for years and only get a few instances of his work with musicians before he picked up Andrew. What the film asks us is do we believe there is a limit to our ability? In Fletcher’s mind, the answer is no. The movie pushes students beyond their physical and mental capability in the name of producing great music. Yes, there’s something to be said for an instructor who berates his students and makes three prospective drummers perform well late into the night until long after their palms bleed, but if they had all been told that they did a good job, the music might not be the caliber Fletcher wants.

Similar to Begin Again earlier this year, there’s a lot of commentary on the state of music, but specifically jazz. Fletcher derides the jazz he hears in a Starbucks and says that the genre itself is dying. The next Charlie Parker may not come around because society just accepts what an artist churns out as good. For masters of the craft, like Fletcher, good isn’t good enough. And not only must it be the best, but the performer must know and believe it’s the best.

This is not a film where the student and mentor bond over time and become so close that they can always swing by the nearby bar and grab a beer. It’s the opposite. Fletcher is a mentor, not a friend. So this is a pretty interesting change of pace from what we’d expect from a student-teacher relationship. It’s more Full Metal Jacket than Freedom Writers. Though I find Fletcher’s methods to be a bit unorthodox, I do agree his reasoning, particularly given his distaste for modern jazz. But I’ll get more into that when discussing Fletcher himself.

Whiplash- Nicole with Andrew

The film also looks at indecisiveness versus devotion, and this comes through mostly in Andrew’s conversations with Nicole. Like a lot of college students, Nicole doesn’t know what she wants in life. That could be one of the reasons why she has not yet declared a major. Right now, she’s just going through the motions of life. The same can be said for Andrew’s father, who had aspirations, but failed as a writer, so now he sticks to teaching instead. Andrew, however, knows exactly what he wants: one of the greats.

Whiplash- Andrew destroys drum

Miles Teller has determination written on his face whenever he steps up to a drum set and he turns in an excellent performance. Andrew literally goes through hell not just to please Fletcher, but to prove that he’s capable of becoming one of the greatest players around. I won’t describe what he goes through later on in the film, but Andrew is willing to put so much on the line at the expense of his body, even in extreme circumstances, that you wonder if he’s lost sense of himself. His answer would be no. He’s thinking just fine- he’s just not about to let anything or anyone– no matter how close they are to him- distract him from music. His quest for perfection comes at the expense of having what many would consider a normal life.

There’s a great dinner scene in the film where two of Andrew’s relatives are engaged in activities as Model U.N. and football. Andrew derides them, claiming that he is much better at his hobby than they are. Sure, we never see the cousins engage, but given Andrew’s ability on the drums, he’s not too far off. He comes off as arrogant and cocky, but he knows that he’s got what it takes to be an amazing player. He wants to be a success and not like his father, who would be the one to tell Andrew “Good job,” no matter how his son performed. For the sake of bettering himself, Andrew pushes away the people who love him. He’s not doing it out of spite. He just would rather spend his time immersed with his drums. His ego runs wild sometimes and he needs to be brought back to Earth.

Whiplash- Terrence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons, watches Andrew play

And this is where Fletcher comes in. The man commands respect and carries great authority. He knows music and knows what sounds good. If you don’t, he will shine the greatest spotlight on you and point out your greatest insecurity for everyone to see. Crying won’t save you from him. His insults are just the icing on the cake. During one session, he tells one flute player to not act like a flute is his boyfriend’s dick and that he shouldn’t come so early. He has a tender moment where he speaks to a friend’s daughter and gives her a high-five. Before Andrew first performs for him, Fletcher has real warmth in his voice when he advises Andrew to not worry.

That’s how he gets you: Fletcher lulls you into a false sense of security before trapping you. The very room where the band auditions is almost like a cave. The moment the monster enters, those already inside can only cower and pray that Fletcher doesn’t make eye contact with them. And when you may be on the verge of turning in a great performance, Fletcher doesn’t smile and give you a pat on the back. There’s a great scene where he’s pushing Andrew further and further, but he does things like play other instruments while Andrew is drumming. All of this is done so Andrew stays focus, but also to see if he will break. When Fletcher finds your weakness, you are done. Coddling is not in his list of duties.

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And my goodness does J.K. Simmons just shine in this role. It’s scary how great of a performance he gave. It’s easily one of my favorite performances from an actor this year. He commands every scene he’s in and I relish every confrontation between Fletcher and Andrew, as Simmons and Teller work well off of each other. For every time that Andrew tries to push back against the abuse, Fletcher doesn’t give him a chance. Fletcher mostly dresses in all black and rarely cracks a smile. When he commands the band to stop playing, they will stop. Simmons is already a great actor, but this role just adds another great job for an already stellar actor. It makes me wonder what kind of insults Peter Parker would have to endure of J. Jonah Jameson really decided to let loose on him. Simmons has moments where he’s calmer, but he also has such energy for the majority of the film and, for my money, he’s the most memorable part of the movie.

Again, Fletcher doesn’t act this way just because he can. He truly believes that talent comes from pushing students beyond their limits. He sees it as a necessity. The next Charlie Parker probably won’t become the next Charlie Parker if he’s not taken beyond his breaking point to awaken his true potential.

Whiplash is a very gripping film. It questions whether we endure cruelty and abuse for the sake of unlocking great talent. And is it really abuse, or a necessity? Should we intentionally push ourselves, at the risk of extreme harm, if we can somehow get closer to that talent we crave? This is a fantastic piece of cinema that hits all of the right points, has great music and direction and is not your conventional student-teacher film. It also has one of the best finishes in a film that I’ve seen recently. Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons both deliver stellar, top-quality performances that I hope earn them some form of recognition- at the very least, nominations, as they are both on their A-game throughout the entire film. It’s a hard movie to sit through at times and I’ll tell you now that this movie isn’t for everyone. For me, it’s one I would watch over and over again and I highly recommend Whiplash.

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