I believe that there’s a desire in all of us to achieve greatness. A deep, internal yearning for importance, respect, and acceptance. We want to be remembered and we want to fulfill a sense of purpose in our lives. For Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), the central character in the 2014 Best Picture nominated film Whiplash, that desire is to be one of the all-time great jazz drummers. Of course, he knows that accomplishing such a goal will require a firmly fixed focus, an uncompromising dedication, and endless hours of practice. What he surely wasn’t expecting was to run into a teacher like Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who will stop at nothing in order to push his students to strive to be their very best. Whiplash makes for a painfully tense and terrifying learning experience that is nothing short of cinematic brilliance.
Andrew is a first-year student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York where the presence of their great head music conductor, Terence Fletcher, looms over everyone. Fletcher is well-known, respected, and feared. More importantly, he is their ticket to success as musicians. Landing a spot in his band is a coveted high honor. Earning his respect is even greater. Though under Fletcher’s guidance, success doesn’t come easy. He rules over the school like a maniacal dictator and he demands absolute perfection from his students. After all, he has a highly revered reputation to preserve, and he’s not about to let anyone jeopardize it. Andrew finds himself lucky enough to be chosen to rehearse with Fletcher’s band, but he’s soon tested, humiliated, abused, and pushed to the limit by his short-tempered instructor.
Already something of a loner, Andrew delves even deeper within due to pressure from his teacher, turning his passion for music into an unhealthy obsession. He cuts off contact with others and devotes himself entirely to practicing. With fingers bloodied from extensive drumming, he simply bandages them up and keeps at it. Not only is his music playing taking control of his life, but it’s also clearly taking a toll on his mental health. Even more troubling for Andrew is that no matter how hard he tries, Fletcher is never satisfied, and he torments his students until they get things right, even if it means practicing all night. Resentment and tension rapidly rise for Andrew as he approaches his breaking point, resulting in the film’s unforgettably tense conclusion.
Whiplash is no walk in the park. It will have you sitting on the edge of your seat in suspense and terror, with your heart still pounding even after it’s over. It’s an emotional horror for young Andrew who is put through Hell by his mad musical conductor. I was legitimately in fear for his life and sanity. While the movie has given me a greater respect for musicians, and jazz bands in particular, it sure makes me feel glad that I was never in band!
Whiplash is remarkable in its design and execution. The film’s cinematography shows a wonderfully adept eye for camera angles, and gives this low-budget film a distinguished look. The director revels in the closeness of the scene, putting us right alongside Andrew as he comes face-to-face with the ever-menacing Fletcher. It’s unbelievably tense and uncomfortable to watch while he’s being verbally and physically assaulted right before your eyes. The film’s Oscar-winning editing finds the right tempo with knowing when to cut and when to linger. It also expertly accompanies the music with its barrage of clear, fast-paced shots. Of course, Whiplash is also very respectful to its music sources, and it does an amazing job in showcasing the outrageous musical talent on display.
The performances from Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are sensational. It is estimated that roughly forty percent of the drumming you see by Andrew in Whiplash was actually performed by Teller. Considering the ridiculous amount of skill involved in these jazz band classics, that statistic should not be understated in the least. Teller puts on an incredible display and pours his heart into this movie. He carries the film, appearing in every single scene, and makes for a believable transition of character under the strict discipline of Fletcher. Even more extraordinary is J.K. Simmons, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor with this performance. Simmons injects his character with an intense ferocity that demands your attention. He terrorizes his musicians while conducting with an iron fist. Yet there’s far more to his character than just being a bully. While I disagreed with his abusive methods, I couldn’t argue against his intended result. His character’s extreme conduct will no doubt take things too far for some viewers, but despite all of his anger, I still found Fletcher to be remarkably fascinating. In the end, as deserving of hatred as he may be, I couldn’t help but feel some level of respect for him, and I think that really speaks to the quality of the film.
Whiplash is an emotionally stirring masterpiece that questions how much is too much when it comes to pushing someone to be their best. It also explores the emotional and psychological harm that can result from that level of pressure and abuse. The movie is bolstered by two tense and energetic performances from Miles and Simmons, who are deserving of all of their praise and accolades. You don’t have to be a fan of jazz music to enjoy this phenomenal film. I found the music to be intoxicating, but the real strength of the movie is the teacher and student dynamic between Andrew and Fletcher. With a diabolically delightful and brilliant ending, these two characters have achieved an esteemed level of movie greatness that make Whiplash a must-see!
5 Minute Movie Guy