Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a talented young drummer, fully dedicated to his dream of becoming one of the “greats” of jazz.
His life revolves around music, with all of his time spent either practicing, or listening to the music of his hero, Buddy Rich. He is studying at a prestigious New York music school, the best in the country.
Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is the school’s most infamous teacher, known for pushing his students beyond what they think they’re capable of… but also known for leading the stellar studio band. Becoming a core member of Fletcher’s band would be a dream come true for any student at the school. They are the elite group.
Fletcher is looking for a drummer, and Andrew might fit the bill, if he can overcome the mental anguish that results from Fletcher’s harsh directing tactics.
Damien Chazelle directs 2014’s Whiplash, a tense musical drama which he also scripted. Chazelle also created a short film of the same name, which was screened at the 2013 Sundance Festival in order to secure investors for a full-length version.
I wasn’t planning on doing a full review of Whiplash. Films like this usually get just a few sentences in a “Modern Movies” post, but after leaving the screening, I felt like I had a lot to say. As a goal-oriented perfectionist, this film provoked a lot of thought from me.
But I’ll start with the basics: is it an enjoyable watch? The answer is yes. It gets off to a bit of a rocky start, with the first few scenes feeling disjointed. I went into the film with high expectations, and started to worry a few minutes in that it wouldn’t meet them.
Luckily, all of that was forgotten as the story picked up intensity, becoming a gripping tale of the dedicated student and the sadistic mentor.
There are a few problems. Melissa Benoist’s character, for instance, seems totally pointless (though the actress has some charm). I understand that the character was created in order to emphasize Andrew’s dedication to music above all else, but I think that message could have come across just as effectively without her. The scenes between Teller and Benoist are awkward and clunky, giving the viewer no reason to care about them as a pair.
But this little issue aside, the film finds its way and by the end is a very powerful watch. J.K. Simmons gives an incredibly strong performance, and Teller also does quite well in his role.
Whiplash has received near-universal acclaim, and I think we can all agree that it’s a good film. So now, I’d like to turn to my particular “reading” of the film, and how it impacted me as a viewer.
Two major themes stand out to me here, and they are related to each other:
Goal > Self
Self > Others
Andrew sacrifices his physical health, his mental health, and his quality of life (in terms of fostering friendships/relationships) in pursuit of his dream of becoming one of the “greats.” I don’t think the film praises him for this. Instead, it shows the detrimental nature of his extreme brand of goal orientation.
If the goal comes before the self, the self comes before all others, as illustrated by both Andrew and Fletcher. Fletcher’s portrayal of this idea was one of the most interesting elements of the story, for me. The film asks the viewer: does Fletcher have a point with his dismissal of the phrase “good job,” and with the amount of value that he places on hard work?
I’m a perfectionist and certainly believe in working hard, so I could see where he was coming from. But the hints of truth that can be found in Fletcher’s perspective are counteracted by his extreme teaching methods, his over-the-top and in-your-face attitude.
And the viewer must also question his motivations, as he discusses his own dream to have a student who becomes the next great jazz star. The validity of his outlook on success is called into question by the fact that he could simply be a crazed director, with the singular goal of finding fame through the success of his students. Andrew may be the next Buddy Rich, but Fletcher will be the man who created the next Buddy Rich.
The film’s ending doesn’t answer the questions surrounding these two themes for the viewer. It can be (and has been) read differently by each viewer. Andrew is left obsessive and friendless, but is his performance-saving self-defense against Fletcher’s sabotage of his performance the ultimate success?
One very plausible outcome is that after the film’s end, neither of these characters have learned much of anything. We don’t see the audience reaction to the performance. The results could very well be new-found fame and a status of “greatness” for talented Andrew, with Fletcher taking credit as his mentor. In this scenario they both get what they’ve always wanted, but don’t see the flaw in how they got there.
Whiplash is an incredibly interesting, engrossing film, almost certain to see some award buzz in the upcoming trophy season. Boiling the synopsis down to “a story about a music student and his teacher,” it may not sound like it would amount to much, but this film is intense, is dramatic, and provokes a lot of thought. The score: 4.5/5