Whiplash (2014), directed and written by Damien Chazelle, is a film mainly about the relationship between a music teacher and his student, and what it takes to become one of the musical greats (in this film, a jazz great). This might sound like a run-of-the-mill story, but the tension, suspense, script, pacing, and questionable decisions of the characters make it a standout film. It is difficult to name a more compact, enduring film on its subject: ambition and teaching methodologies in the musical world.
(Just to note: there are spoilers in the subsequent paragraphs)
One fascinating aspect of this film is how it begins and ends. The main character, Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller), begins the film by drumming away on his snare drum and slowly coming to an almost-halt. It is a meditative, lovely start to the pacing. The film ends in much the same way: with a flourish on the snare drum. It shows the thread of dedication and passion throughout the film, and where it brings the main character in terms of his development.
As a jazz drumming student at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, the top music school in the U.S., he is working hard at becoming more than an alternate drummer for the school band. He does not feel like he fits in, though, and believes the other students do not enjoy his presence. There are many intense scenes that focus on his solo training, with its sweat, blood, sound, and agony. The pointed frames on individual parts of the drum kit and on Andrew’s face make these scenes riveting and tangible.
Andrew’s hard work begins to pay off when Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the band conductor, takes notice of him during one of his practice sessions, and then later on in a practice class. The conductor listens to each section of the practice class and finally chooses Andrew to come with him to a higher tier of the Studio Band. Terence is imposing in every scene, with his muscular body, no nonsense talk and gestures, and what we will see later in the film, abuse. This abuse is a prominent talking point in the film, as we do not know if we should be disgusted and horrified by it, or that in the end, we recognize that it was beneficial for the conductor’s students to realize their full potential.
Meanwhile, a love interest develops. Every week, Andrew goes with his father to a small cinematic theater, and Andrew takes notice of the concession-stand girl Nicole (Melissa Benoist) and asks her out on a date. Though their dates are somewhat awkward, you can tell there is chemistry there. I enjoyed that the director did not bring attention to this relationship too much, as the most important part of the film was the relationship between Terence and Andrew. Later in the film, Andrew breaks off his relationship with Nicole in order to become “one of the greats” and convinces himself that he cannot date her because of his time commitment to drumming. This only adds to the insane level of dedication Andrew displays towards achieving prominence, and willingness to even give up the ones he loves in order to achieve his goal. Once again, we do not know if this decision was for better or for worse. However, later in the film, when Andrew calls Nicole after several months of not calling her, he invites her to a jazz festival he will be playing at. She tells him she will have to ask her boyfriend about it, and Andrew realizes he has already lost her. This is reflective of a dinner conversation Andrew has with his family where he says that he would rather die poor and alone, but known as one of the greats. His conviction in this is apparent throughout the film.
Back to the classes, Andrew is regularly embarrassed, abused, and ridiculed by the conductor. The suspense of the film stems from the stellar performances by both of the main characters, and the psychological warfare that is being waged between them. Eventually, after many practice sessions, concerts, and talks, Andrew snaps. During one competition, where just right before, he gets in a car accident as he is told from the conductor and band members that someone will take his place as the core drummer, Andrew comes on stage at the last moment, and does his best to play. His face and arms are bloodied and he can barely perform. After Terence tells Andrew “he’s done,” Andrew jumps up and tackles Terence to the ground. The lead up to this intense scene was an impromptu competition between three drummers, including Andrew, to see who could keep a specific speed. After three excruciating hours, Andrew came out on top and was named the new core drummer for the band. This spot is what Andrew strives to get and to keep every day in each class, each concert, and each competition. Terence makes certain that Andrew is never comfortable in this pursuit, and thus, pushes him to the limits of his skill and morals.
From a technical point of view, the tempo of the film, like jazz drumming, is diverse and intriguing. Some of the pacing is slow at some points, and other instances are thrilling in their execution. There is never a dull moment, and it seems that each scene is necessary for the story to unfold.
The script is phenomenally natural-sounding and brash. It is difficult to count the amount of swear words and phrases of aggressiveness in this film, most of which come from Terence. On paper, this might seem overdone, but in the context of the conductor’s class, this type of script worked marvels. Almost every phrase from Terence was deliberately focused on demoralizing, yet motivating his students. The interactions between them did not seem stylized, but rather like any other conversation between people in New York.
Also riveting is the development of the main character, Andrew. He starts out as a shy, unpretentious college kid. But through the torments of Terence, he begins to lose his nerves and begins to stand up for himself—either in ego or self defence, it is hard to tell. By the end, you are not sure if he has lost his marbles, overcome by his passion for the drums, or that his obsession for the drums and the abusive motivation from his teacher was what he needed to become a star drummer. The audience is left questioning the actions of the teacher and student, but in the end, we get the satisfaction to see Terence smile, at least once.
This is at least a near-perfect psychological thriller. But it also rises above entertainment and storytelling: it makes us question education, ambition, and our place in this world.