Whiplash is set in the academic music world, following a 19-year-old who has a goal of being a famous jazz drummer. He’s studying at a prestigious New York City music school where he’s friendless and depressed, spending most of his free time holed up in a practice room, drumming his heart out. In order to move towards his ultimate idea of success – work in a jazz band that’ll win him the accolades and respect he desires – he must first go through a bullying tyrant of a teacher, a noted conductor responsible for the college’s premiere jazz ensemble. And so, though the film is set in the world of jazz, the film is not about jazz. It’s about an emotionally abusive relationship, as the student eager to please is drawn into a world of overwhelming anxiety by an overbearing, impossible to please teacher.
As Mr. Fletcher, the teacher in question, beloved character actor J.K. Simmons, most recently known to audiences as the loving father in Juno and the scene-stealing J. Jonah Jameson in Raimi’s Spider-Mans, is a domineering, hectoring, frightening schoolroom authority figure. He’s scary. It’s also the kind of supporting performance that bends the rest of the film into its orbit. He has forceful, explosive anger and intensely steady confidence, intimidating in its immovable presence. He stalks the room in tight black shirts that accentuate his powerful arms and gleaming bald head. He demands nothing short of perfection, as a prestigious music expert would, but goes about it by running cruel practice sessions. He puts students on the spot, brusquely dismissing their worth. He can be warm one minute, cutting and bruising the next. He’s quick with a homophobic slur, a belittling comment, ready to use personal information about a student as a knife to stick in and twist, all in the name of making better musicians.
Simmons’ Fletcher towers over every scene. Characters respect and fear him in equal measure. When he turns his stare towards the camera, I couldn’t help but get a little nervous myself. Writer-director Damien Chazelle, in only his second feature, shows great sense of blocking by keeping the man tall and looming in the frame. Our lead, the driven student (Miles Teller), sits behind a drum kit, low in the frame, separated from the others. On the first day of practice, he cries. Later, he exerts so much intense effort his hands split open, blood pooling on the sticks and drums, sweat falling on the cymbals as he plays through the pain, his teacher demanding more and more. Late in the film, Fletcher is asked if it’s possible to go too far. His answer is simple. “No.”
Chazelle effectively narrows the film’s focus to this core student/mentor relationship, charting the perfect storm that arises between Teller’s desire to the be the best at all cost, and Simmons’ readiness to push students as far as he can at all cost. That’s a lot of costs. Teller, in a less showy but no less nuanced role that gains most of its power from the determination in his eyes and in the silent strain growing there, throws himself into his drumming. He’s feeling pressure from all sides, like a cartoonishly dismissive extended family who think his music’s nice, but his cousins’ football is impressive. He shuts out good elements of his life – a wonderfully supportive and loving father (Paul Resier) and a cute potential love interest (Melissa Benoist) – to focus on pounding out paradiddle after paradiddle until he’s perfect.
The film becomes a series of anxiety attacks as a student who feels he can’t catch a break gets pushed to the breaking point by a teacher unwilling to waver from his intensity. The young man, earnest and serious about his musical ambitions, comparing himself to Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker, arrives at a point where he knows his teacher is an unfair, manipulative, and psychologically assaultive bully, almost impossible to please. Even if he did, the approval won’t last long. And yet he wants to please the authority figure still. He’s told it’s the path to success, and is determined to get there. These performances sell the relationship’s tricky nature, as the actors find the humanity and the danger in their methods and madness.
Chazelle places this core emotionally abusive power dynamic over a formula setup, transposing a music school drama onto a sports movie structure as the ensemble prepares to perform for higher and higher stakes competitions. Practices and performances alike are filmed in whip pans and cut together with percussive editing, driving the skill and suspense of the drumming to greater heights. But what starts as formula ends up with psychologically weighted drum solos somewhere unexpected and gripping. Whiplash is so committed to following its characters’ drives that it arrives at a perfectly logical but wholly surprising conclusion. We watch two driven and uncompromising men pushing themselves for control over the situation, over a relationship that’s unhealthy and yet potentially might bring about beautiful music.