Whiplash is about a young drummer who is enrolled at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory School in New York and is anxiously trying to become ‘one of the greats’ after being chosen to perform in a highly competitive jazz band: a simple plotline in and of itself. What is extraordinary about the film is the deft way in which Damien Chazelle encapsulates the thrill as well as the grinding pressure of performance, the speed and temerity, as well as the drag, the constant stopping and starting of rehearsals, and the extremely volatile behaviour of both performer and conductor. Along with some acerbic and very playful dialogue that serves us a constant ‘whiplashing’ at every turn, and some of the best editing and cinematography I have ever seen, this really is a special film.
Andrew Neiman, the student in question, played by the disarming Miles Teller, is practising on the drums at the beginning of the film and we are instantly initiated into the stark and lucid quality of Chazelle’s picture. No need for stylised edits, maudlin soundtrack or a bumbling pace, we’re pushed straight into Andrew’s life and the bare aspect of his student accommodation. The singular image of his kit along the end of a deserted corridor is a wonderful allusion to the loneliness but also the naked pleasure of being so entirely lost in rhythm, transcending the stasis of space and the slow vault of time. The conductor of the top studio band at Shaffer, Terence Fletcher (a formidable J.K. Simmons) observes Andrew’s practice from the doorway and recognises a gleam of talent. He gives Andrew a kind of mock encouragement, heavily veiled behind mixed messages and sarcasm, then abruptly leaves when Andrew beings to play again.
Simmons is absolutely phenomenal in this role. Eventually, Andrew earns himself a place in his studio band, though ‘earns’ is a crucially unstable concept. Fletcher is so fierce with his students, his coaching borders on abuse. From the moment Andrew is initiated into this privy circle of players, he observes Fletcher’s behaviour with a mixture of incredulity and awe. Simmons is a bald, biting and belligerent teacher, sombrely dressed in a kind of funereal yet utterly commanding black attire. His language is truly brilliant. I think the genius of the screenplay lies in the ability to make Fletcher at once heinous yet hilarious too. Foul-mouthed rants are ignited with a kind of ingenious humour that reveals a mercilessly scathing character, fully laughing to himself at the expense of his students and allowing us to laugh along too. He’s sociopathic, consistently screaming, insulting and demoralising everyone until he gets just the precise tenor and sound that only he can hear. It makes you wonder whether the students finally hit the right ‘tempo’ purely by chance, falling into it by accident, after repeated attempts to please Fletcher’s insanely sensitive ears.
The dualistic nature of this film, which I alluded to before, comes into full swing when Fletcher turns on Andrew. He initially buoys Andrew up before the session, telling him to repeat to himself that he deserves to be there. And yet, in a flash, when Andrew fumbles slightly in the rehearsal – though his ‘fumbling’ is certainly something that only Fletcher can hear which makes us wary, never knowing when he’ll next be slated for stalling in rhythm – Fletcher turns nasty. He is explosive, surreally unhinged. Andrew is not catching on to his own specific tempo and is either ‘rushing or dragging.’ And thus we understand the uncertainty, the impermanence of glory in Fletcher’s circle of players. Andrew might have been told he ‘earned’ something before but that can be demolished in the next instant with one false beat. Consequently, Andrew vacillates between extreme pride and utter self-abasement. He starts out as a kid with barely any self-confidence; this morphs into a cocky swagger, a sense of elitism when he is around family and his (somewhat short-lived) girlfriend. This egotism (though entirely earned as he is unmistakably brilliant) takes its regular bashing when he returns to band practice and it is surely only a matter of time before Andrew either self-implodes from the pressures Fletcher applies to him, or erupts into a frenzied resistance against those pressures.
Fletcher’s mantra is that ‘the two most harmful words’ told to anybody with an ounce of talent are ‘good job.’ His goal is to encourage his protégée, paradoxically, by discouraging him, shrinking him down with blows until he learns to expand again in retaliation and, in expanding against these pressures which attempt to shrink him, burst out of the mould he was originally cast in. This is a dangerous and insidious form of training. We discover that a past student of Fletcher’s, a supremely great jazz musician, has just committed suicide due to having suffered depression and panic attacks ever since he began playing in Fletcher’s band. Is this the state Andrew is heading for?
Fletcher is remarkable for tapping into the hubristic, closely guarded concerns of some of his best students. He is the shadow of torment, playing people each other so they become almost like small, overly-inflated versions of himself; arrogant, enraged and sneering at one another. He makes Andrew fear for his role all the time by forcing him into dispute with two other drummers, rubbing their egos against one another to create a fiery talent in one of them. This is where the abuse seems to work. Troubling though he may be, with his brittle and uncompromising ideal of attaining artistic perfection, you cannot argue that Fletcher does have a profoundly positive effect on Andrew that just, just, outweighs the negative in time for a smashing finale. Are the massive mood swings and physical pain worth it for attaining a truly sublime performance that transcends all others? Is perfection real or something that exists only on Fletcher’s terms, thus making it subjective? Will Andrew be a burnout like Fletcher’s past student? And, if so, does that even matter if he is still immortalized for the pinnacle that he managed to reach beforehand? Is live music always deconstructing itself, never stable and never absolute because its tempo relies on the timing of the next beat?
The best thing about the film? It would be hard to name one feature that stands above the rest. The beautifully edited shots of classical instruments, players quickly turning pages and Andrew’s contorted face as he reaches his climax are certainly powerful. The musical pieces, ‘Whiplash’ and ‘Caravan’ being the two main ones, are gorgeously brought to life (no need to be a jazz fanatic to enjoy these tunes). Miles Teller is perfectly vulnerable and cocky in turns – as well as being an incendiary performer, utterly passionate and sexy toward the end – and there are no superlatives fitting enough to really do justice to J.K. Simmons. And, as for the last twenty minutes or so of the film, I have never enjoyed a finale so much. Sublimely powerful. Everything else melts away from the universe when you watch Teller on those drums.