Whiplash is an American Drama film which sees aspiring drummer, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), feel the wrath of menacing jazz conductor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), while studying at one of the best music schools in the country.
Neiman is 19, ambitious, with the single-minded, lifelong goal of becoming the next Buddy Rich. His talent for drumming secures him place at Shaffer Conservatory, where in quick succession he comes under the tutelage of resident maestro of jazz, Fletcher. First impressions are everything to go by with Fletcher: a leather skinned, bald headed reptile in a tight black t shirt, who oozes asshole from the moment he steps on screen.
Spotting Neiman playing alone in a practice room, he bluntly instructs him to show his worth, before disappearing out the door without so much as a well done. He re-appears again in similar fashion- this time brazenly interrupting one of Neiman’s lessons, taking charge of the conducting, and demanding an in-class audition, which successfully earns Neiman a spot in his class.
What at first may have read as kindness and courtesy however, then manifests as abuse, as Neiman gets a first glimpse at Fletcher’s vicious treatment of other band members in class . Focusing his cruelty on Neiman, Fletcher then proceeds to hurl a chair across the room at his latest drummer for falling out of tempo with practice song Whiplash by Hank Levy. The rest of the class meanwhile remain dead quiet. Here we meet Fletcher the monster: nostrils flared, veins bulging, swearing like he’s got Tourette’s- think Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast meets Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket.
Desperate to win Fletcher over, Neiman practices night and day, getting bloodied hands in the process and dumping his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) out of fear that she’ll distract from his dreams and hog his time. Fletcher meanwhile continues to play master of manipulation- promoting Neiman to lead drummer at the loss of the previous drummer’s sheet music, before ruthlessly demoting him back to second-in-line in the blink of an eye.
And if Fletcher wasn’t already unpredictable enough, viewers then get a misleading glimpse of tears as he mourns the death of his once beloved student, Sean Casey, who, at least to his telling of events, died in a recent car accident. Casey, as we learn, was destined to be Fletcher’s very own Charlie Parker– a reputation which Neiman hopes to attain, unaware of the pain and suffering that comes with it.
As the moment of grieving passes, Fletcher tells the class that they’re to learn Caravan– a Duke Ellington classic which calls upon a tricky double time swing on part of the drummer. Struggling to keep in time with Fletcher’s tempo, Neiman is cruelly rotated with two other drummers, until finally securing the part at an upcoming concert after hours of relentless practicing.
Come concert day, Neiman is a wreck: his bus break down, he misplaces his drum sticks, and in a hurried attempt to not miss the performance, gets hit by a truck in a car he’s rented. In a moment of contrived bravery, he miraculously escapes from his car, and runs the last couple of hundred yards, dripping in blood and falling off balance. Now, in a typical Hollywood film, Neiman would run through the doors, step on stage, and pull of the best performance of his life, but in yet another cruel twist of fate, he is stopped mid-performance and told that his time at Shaffer is done. Reacting as most betrayed, testosterone fuelled teenagers would, he lashes out at Fletcher in a bout of frenzied punches and kicks.
Shortly thereafter he is expelled from school and makes the startlingly discovery that golden boy Sean Casey allegedly took his own life, rather than being hit by a car. Determined to not meet the same fate as Casey, he lends his support to ongoing legal efforts to get Fletcher thrown out of Shaffer and eventually testifies against him.
Months later he learns that Fletcher is performing in a local club and decides to attend. Gripped by his old teacher’s magical piano playing, he’s stays awhile and is soon spotted before he has time to leave. They drink, talk about the old times, and Fletcher admits that although his methods at Schaffer were harsh, borderline savage, they were carried out with the intention of cultivating greatness; in his words, pushing his students “beyond what’s expected of them” with the hope of creating the next jazz legend. He then slyly plays devil advocate by talking about his untimely dismissal, before making Neiman an offer of playing on stage alongside him at a prestigious JVC festival concert, on account of his current drummer not being up to scratch.
Blinded by passion to prove himself, Neiman agrees to the part. On the day of the concert however, Fletcher confesses that he knew about Neiman’s duping him in, and exacts his revenge by getting the band to play a song which Neiman neither has sheet music for, nor grasp of drumming off-the-cuff. In what feels like an eternal moment of humiliation, Neiman plays unknown beats and bows his head in shame. He then leaves the stage betrayed, before quickly returning in a final show of heroism that only a true great could muster. Harnessing courage from deep within his blackened soul he delivers an electrifying drum solo which takes even Fletcher by surprise, as the film arrives at its final triumphant climax.
Whiplash is one of those rites-of-passage films which makes you look inside yourself and ask: am I fulfilling my true potential? A film where the moral compass shifts between the hating the iron fist that deals out blows, to relishing the strength of mind they inspire. It’s backed by some spectacular cinematography, a superb score and some pitch perfect acting from Simmons and Teller.
Critically, it packs a hefty 8.7 on IMDB and a near-on flawless 97% on rotten tomatoes. For Director Chazelle, it marks an impressive sophomore effort which has already bagged five nominations at the 87th Academy Awards, including Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor for Simmons.
Whiplash is not just a film for music enthusiasts, but for anyone who likes an out of the ordinary thought provoking drama.