Going by the trailer, you might expect Whiplash to be another tender, heart-warming tale about a precocious music prodigy and well-versed mentor. You probably already imagine the warm moments—the mentor taking him under his wing, the obstacles they overcome, the capabilities they realize. The film is none of that. Director Damien Chazelle’s commercial debut, Whiplash offers a far more self-aware take on the musical prodigy flick, demolishing cliches with dynamic leads and an unconventional plot.
Andrew Neyman’s (Miles Teller) whole life revolves around drumming. In both the first and final shots of the film, we are privy to Neyman’s prowess as a musician—yet the film is not entirely about his drumming. Instead, the film focuses on the 19-year-old Neyman as he struggles to prove himself as a musician. The youngest member of the Schaffer Conservatory’s jazz ensemble, he holds a spot in one of the best musical schools in the country. Neyman is under the tutelage of the ruthless Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons)—who is not above bringing his students to the brink of tears and flinging chairs across the room in order to get them to play in time.
It is Fletcher’s tough-love approach to conducting that drives Neyman to practice tirelessly through blistered and bloody fingers in order to meet his unattainably high expectations. Fletcher will verbally abuse his students, humiliating them in front of the entire ensemble for what he believes is for the good of all. This tactic only further goads Andrew to practice.
Both Fletcher and Neyman repeatedly cite Charlie Parker as the inspiration behind their actions. Fletcher relates an anecdote where a young Parker had made a mistake and Jo Jones had flung a cymbal at his head, eventually leading him on the path to becoming one of the most renowned jazz saxophonists of the 20th century. Similarly, Neyman echoes these aspirations for universal acclaim, relating to a table full of his unimpressed and jeering family members that Charlie Parker did not need any friends because he had achieved greatness in his life.
We are reminded again and again of the lengths of Neyman’s dedication to his craft and how far Fletcher is willing to push him to achieve his full potential. Neyman breaks up a promising relationship with the concession cashier at the local movie theater, Nicole (Melissa Benoist) in order to rid himself of all other distractions. He even suffers a near-death car collision, dragging himself out of the wreckage of a flipped car and somehow making it to a music competition in the nick of time. More than anything, Neyman fears the mediocrity that has been passed down in his family, determined to break the mold of his father’s (Paul Reiser) average existence. Mirroring Neyman’s resolve, Fletcher is convinced that encouragement eventually breeds complacency, believing that his verbal abuse and putdowns will eventually lead to the rise of the next Charlie Parker.
J.K. Simmons’ rendition of the monstrous Terence Fletcher is his most notable performance yet. In his antagonistic outbursts and perverse, often crude language, Simmons commands the majority of the film’s attention. Similarly, Teller’s stunning portrayal of the unflinchingly resilient—and at times, erratic—Neyman is a finer point of the film. One moment he is shy and bumping feet with a girl under the table on a first date and the next he singlehandedly hijacks a music performance, practically pouring himself (along with blood, sweat, and tears) onto the stage. Chazelle employs a series of stylistic jump cuts and close-up camera moves, zeroing in on the uncomfortable body language of the ensemble’s supporting cast with deft precision.
Whiplash upsets the predictability of most musical drama films. The film works to dismantles the archetypes of the genre. Ultimately, Whiplash breaks ground as a grimacing Andrew drums his way to greatness—all without a wizened Obi-Wan figure leading the way.
Featured Image Courtesy of Blumhouse Productions