The Oscars are around the corner, and Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014) is on the tip of every critic’s tongue. Wearing the proud badge of 95% Fresh, the drummer-centric film has been nominated for five Academy Awards, one of which is Best Picture. But Whiplash is more than a movie about music—it raises important questions about the student/mentor relationship.
The story focuses on hopeful jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) and his teacher Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Andrew is studying at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York, where Fletcher is a feared and respected band conductor. Andrew is optimistic, practicing passionately after hours, aspiring to be like the great drummers he admires. He is pulled abruptly from his days of page turning when Fletcher drafts him into his studio band. Fletcher appears encouraging at first, but during his first practice with the band (playing the Hank Levy classic “Whiplash”), Andrew has trouble keeping the tempo. Fletcher loses his temper, throwing a chair at Andrew’s head. This is only the beginning of the continually worsening abusive relationship between them. Fletcher is brash and vulgar toward many of his students, but seems to spend most of his energy belittling the drummers. Driven to better himself in order to impress Fletcher, Andrew practices until his hands bleed.
In spite of being promoted to core drummer, Andrew still finds himself pitted against other musicians by Fletcher, who pushes them to their limits. For Andrew, this culminates in physical violence. During one of his furious solo practices, he punches a drum in rage. It is not the first time he has bled for Fletcher, nor is it the last. On his way to an important performance, Andrew’s car gets hit by a truck. Desperate to arrive on the stage on time for fear of losing his place, he crawls from the wreckage. Too injured to play properly, Fletcher tells him he’s “done.” Enraged, Andrew knocks him down.
After being expelled for attacking a teacher, Andrew is approached by a lawyer who represents the parents of one of Fletcher’s former students who recently committed suicide. Andrew is asked to testify against Fletcher as proof that the man is emotionally abusive. Andrew complies, and Fletcher is fired.
Cut to summer—one day after Andrew’s shift at work, he crosses paths with Fletcher. “I know I made enemies,” Fletcher admits. In a strange act of kindness, he invites Andrew to play with his band at a festival. Acting on the residual need to impress his mentor, he agrees. Given the sheet music for “Whiplash,” Andrew is feeling confident. But before they begin, Fletcher tells Andrew on stage that he knows it was him who testified. In revenge, he has the band play a song Andrew wasn’t given sheet music for, deliberately humiliating him. Andrew leaves the stage, but returns in the middle of Fletcher talking to the audience. He interrupts him by starting to play. The band begins playing with him, and Andrew has complete control of the set. Fletcher has no choice but to conduct. Andrew finishes the piece with an intense drum solo. Fletcher finally engages with the music, and gives him a nod of approval.
Whiplash’s focus on the artist’s obsession creates an interesting viewing experience. Andrew is not simply a drummer who wants to create music. Andrew is a drummer who was in an emotionally draining and verbally abusive relationship with his mentor that resulted in an unhealthy fixation with earning approval. J.K. Simmons’s nomination for Best Supporting Actor is well deserved. He portrays the sort of character that everyone has encountered at least once in their lives—the teacher who pushes too far. We hate Fletcher on the same grounds that we hate Dolores Umbridge. We as an audience can relate to the distress and irritation Fletcher causes, and we root for Andrew to prove him wrong, or take a stand.
The film’s best feature, however, was none of the above. The soundtrack is a phenomenal mixture of classic jazz and an original score that keeps the audience engaged with the tension on screen. If nothing else, listen to some Buddy Rich. (In fact, if you’d like to avoid lots of yelling, I suggest that’s all you do.)
See you all on Twitter this Sunday for the 87th Oscars!
The Collected Mutineer
Check out our other reviews of the 2015 Best Picture Nominations.