Andrew (Miles Teller) is a promising young drumming student in his first year at the prestigious musical college the Shaffer Conservatory. An ambitious student, he vies for the attention of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the conductor and director of the best jazz band in the school. Catching his eye, Fletcher invites him along to practice however, practice is more of a torture session as Fletcher pushes his students further than might be expected by hugely aggressive means.
Tell people that there is a film about a drumming protégé playing in a jazz band and they will probably roll their eyes before turning back to the listings of their nearest Odeon, but as you can see from the film’s trailer, Whiplash is a much more hard edged and aggressive film than your typical music film might suggest, with it having more in common with the first half of Full Metal Jacket. Fletcher is not your usual music teacher. He is not one to gently support and coerce a student to becoming better, instead he firmly believes in the very hard school of tough love. The opening scene sees Fletcher and Andrew meet for the first time and right from their first lines you can feel that something is a bit different about Fletcher, as he starts playing mental games with Andrew. From here the film follows the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher, each pushing against the other as Fletcher pushes Andrew and he tries to prove that he is good enough.
‘There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’. This in essence is Fletcher’s motto. As he enters the practice room, with Andrew eager and smiling behind the drum kit in his first time there, you can see that he commands fear, as all the other musicians keep their heads down, terrified of him turning his anger on them. When the hurt finally does come, it is explosive and shocking, Fletcher humiliating and degrading his students, even physically throwing things at them, shouting in their face and using their personal life against them before they end up crying, shamed and terrified. Fletcher believes that to get the best out of people, to make them truly great, you have to push them past where they think they can go, to make them try harder, practice harder and become better. This is the issue that the film presents to you; Fletcher’s methods do seem to work, Andrew practices until his hands are a mess of bleeding wounds, but is Fletcher going too far? We live in a world where people are encouraged with kindness but does that mean that they will not go as far as they could, not push themselves and not realise their potential because they think they are already good enough? Fletcher’s methods are extreme but you can’t help but feel that there is indeed some method to the horrific madness. He treats his students horrifically but they stay because they know he is the best and that he will get the best from them. J.K. Simmons is quite unlike you’ve seen him before, the other side to his cuddly amusing outbursts in his most well known role as J. Jonah Jameson in Spiderman, and he also imbues Fletcher with small moments of sensitivity, displaying the man behind the monster, creating a rounded out character rather than just a shouting machine. It’s thrilling to see a film that finally manages to prove the extent of his talent. Surely, that Best Supporting Oscar is his come February.
Relative unknown Miles Teller is also good as Andrew, a young man with obvious talent and someone who you can’t help but empathise for but who also pushes your sympathy in his pursuit of glory. He is a young man without any friends who belongs to a broken family and who is trying to be the best at what his talent has given him but the arrogance and aggressive drive that forms around him distances your liking for the character.
The film is not without its flaws. At the end of the second act there is a crux of drama that pushes credibility somewhat, the role of Andrew’s girlfriend, played by Melissa Benoist is quite underwritten, her only purpose really to show what Andrew is willing to give up to become a better drummer, and some of the extended drumming sections may start to wear a little thin on those who are less invested in the music but these are fairly minor flaws in what is a surprising, intense and exhilarating drama.
Whiplash is a well performed and made drama with a couple of brilliant leading performances. You’ll be swept along and entertained until the barnstorming final performance.