How far would someone be willing to be pushed in order to achieve greatness? That’s a question that is inevitably answered through 107 minutes of intense imagery as we watch one jazz band student exude actual blood, sweat and tears while being humiliated, as well as physically and mentally abused by his own music teacher. Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is not a movie about music, it’s a movie about the obsession with becoming the next great musician at any cost. To be remembered purely for your unmatched talent is something that is strived for, and everything else in life is just another obstacle to achieving your goal, at least, that’s what goes through the mind of our main character.
Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a 19-year-old drummer attending one of the best music schools in the country. After an encounter with the infamous teacher and conductor of a competitive school jazz band, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Andrew is offered to sit in as an alternate drummer in the band. At first, Fletcher gives him friendly assurance to just do his best, and Andrew is shocked by his reaction when he fails to follow tempo and has a chair thrown at his head. He soon realizes that Fletcher is far from the encouraging, easy-going teacher he thought he might be. Andrew practices and practices until his hands blister and bleed so that he can fight for the spot as main drummer, all the while he struggles with having a social life and making time for his new girlfriend. Fletcher pushes Andrew to his limits, chastising him and humiliating him in front of his peers at any available opportunity, and no matter how hard Andrew tries, he feels he may never live up to Fletcher’s impossible standards.
The thing about Whiplash is that it poses some pretty interesting questions about what it takes for someone to reach their full potential. Is Fletcher ruthless and abusive? Yes. Is he doing it purely just to be an evil bastard? I don’t think so. He’s obviously not completely sane or moral in the way he tries to do it, but I honestly think he really was trying to find the next great jazz musician. One could argue that our society has become too over-sensitive when it comes to even the smallest things in life. Everything is about political correctness, you can’t even say Merry Christmas to someone anymore without them getting offended. It’s borderline ridiculous, to be honest. So in this film, a merciless teacher comes along and pushes Andrew over his limits. It’s easy enough to say that it’s wrong because you shouldn’t abuse other people, but was it completely wrong after all? Even though it seemed as though Andrew was already obsessing over the idea of becoming a famous musician before Fletcher came along, would he really have ever achieved it unless there was someone like Fletcher to light a fire under him? You can’t really know for sure.
In the movie, Fletcher tells Andrew, “There are no two words more harmful to the English language than ‘good job’.” That’s a tough statement to come to terms with, but I have to kind of agree. If he had coddled Andrew the entire time and deceivingly assured him that he was doing a “good job,” then Andrew would never have the motivation to push himself further in order to fully reach his potential, then maybe the dream of becoming a famous musician would never be fulfilled. Of course, the movie doesn’t show you whether or not Andrew goes on to make it big, but the last scene gives you the assurance that there was at least a good chance of that happening.
I almost feel bad sticking up for Fletcher because he was pretty terrible and insanely scary, and I’m not one to condone abuse and bullying. I felt like I was going to have nightmares of J.K. Simmons screaming in my face, “Were you rushing or were you dragging?!” The extent of Fletcher’s abuse was definitely over the top, but I can’t fault a teacher for being hard on a student that is worthy of achieving so much more than just doing a “good job.” Although, I’ll admit, I hated teachers I came across that were even just a little bit like that. I needed it, though, because I was a grade-A slacker.
Now that I’ve babbled on too much about morality, let me move on to the two stand out performances from J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller. Like I said, Simmons was so intense and scary, he’s worthy of being the object of nightmares. I’m too used to seeing him in comical roles, I was surprised he could take such a drastic turn. Admittedly, some of his insults were a bit comical, but in a bad way, the type you feel awful for laughing at. He’s not someone I would ever want to go head-to-head with, in fact, if I were Andrew, I probably would’ve given up that dream real quick. I won’t be surprised to see Simmons’ name in the list of nominees for an Oscar this season, because this performance is definitely worthy of it.
Miles Teller surprised me even more. He’s not really an actor I’ve been crazy about lately, and it probably has to do with the multiple roles he’s taken as a teenager or young adult tool, and he certainly has no problem with those. He’s taken a turn for his career here though, and it was a smart one. Not only is he extremely convincing as a talented drummer, but the emotions quite literally pour out of him in this film. It’s insane to watch, it’s even hard to watch at times, because I can feel the intensity of his and Simmons’ performances to the point where my body was actually tense.
Whiplash is a great film about the obsession with achieving greatness. It raises questions of how far is too far, and if the end really justifies the means when it involves an overly harsh teacher and an impressionable student. The performances, direction, cinematography and editing are all worth noting here, as they work flawlessly together to create an experience where you can’t take your eyes off the screen. There are so many movies that have impressed me this year, and this is one of them. It’s another must-see for anyone looking to enjoy some really great talent.