I’m just going to come out and be honest here – this is my favourite movie of 2015.
Whiplash stars Miles Teller as Andrew Nieman, a promising young drummer who enrols at a cut throat music conservatory. His dreams of greatness are mentored by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a instructor who will stop at nothing to realise Andrew’s potential.
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job”.” – Fletcher
We’re only halfway through the year and already I’ve made a big statement, especially when there’s plenty of the film slate to go. But I’m not kidding, Whiplash is in a league of it’s own.
It’s a film that defies all expectations. Who would have thought a film about jazz drumming could be a powerful and gripping subject?
The essence of the film is incredibly simplistic. It’s 107 minutes of Andrew being put through the ultimate music test. It’s a physically demanding and mental test that will either shape his future career or his dream will fade into obscurity. The beauty of that essence is that Whiplash constantly asks the ethical question – how much is too far?
I know it sounds like a broad question but for a film that is about the ultimate art of dedication and ambition, Whiplash covers all bases. It morally blurs the lines between inspiration and total humiliation.
“I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that’s an absolute necessity.” – Fletcher
The best way to put this in perspective is to address the two focal points in the film.
Andrew Nieman and Terence Fletcher have a tit for tat, love/hate relationship showcasing who’s in control. Their constant battle for mutual and self respect becomes a fascinating watch for the audience.
There’s a fresh faced naivety and vulnerability about Andrew at the beginning but he clearly knows what he wants. He wants to make his mark and will defend his choice of profession. He quickly immerses himself into a determined work ethic. His bedroom wall has a single photograph of his drumming inspiration. He’s attentive, eager to learn/study the music that fuels his passion. He has no notable friends and even dumps his girlfriend – no distractions and no excuses. His goal of perfection only inspires him to work harder, drumming until he sweats and his fingers bleed from the physical exertion and exhaustion he puts himself through.
Fletcher’s presence is intimidating and you immediately get that feeling as soon as he walks into a room. Notice how his students immediately look down to the floor as if they’re afraid to stare at the face of evil.
Fletcher clearly knows his stuff – he has conducted long enough and earned a reputation on it but his methods can be argued as being questionable. He demands perfection every single time without mistake. Andrew becomes a first hand witness to Fletcher’s brutality and soul destroying comments, clearly not afraid of belittling his class. He dupes Andrew by leading him through a false sense of security about relaxing and doing your best. Moments later he throws a chair at his head and repeatedly slaps him so he could tell the difference in timing. In other words, his put downs and actions would make Simon Cowell or Jeremy Kyle weep.
Because the camera gets up close and personal with the lead actors, it invades their space. There’s no quick getaway with the reactions. You will feel Fletcher’s raw intensity and emotion in the same way Andrew does.
As much as it was uncomfortable to watch Fletcher through his angry, manipulative, torturous and temperamental exchanges, this might be an unpopular thought but I get where he’s coming from.
As mentioned, the whole film is a test and Fletcher constantly throws mental hurdles in Andrew’s direction, especially when he shows any hint of over-confidence, cockiness or arrogance. Do you think it’s a coincidence the stories Fletcher told to Andrew were not done on purpose, especially when aspects of the story came to fruition moments later? Although there’s no actual evidence of this but a part of me thinks Fletcher stole Tanner’s music notes that Andrew casually misplaces on a chair, just before the competition starts.
The reason for all of this? To test Andrew’s mentality, motivation and ambition. I think Fletcher could always see Andrew’s potential otherwise why put him through those extremes? He’s not doing this for fun – he wants his students to achieve greatness, to be the next Charlie Parker as he would say.
I don’t necessarily agree with all of his methods (I don’t think you’re ever suppose to) but by knocking him down builds up Andrew’s resolve. If Andrew wants to achieve anything in life, you have to earn it and not have opportunities handed on a plate – hence the three-way drumming try out to get the perfect double time swing.
Judging by Fletcher’s reaction, it doesn’t look like he’s encountered many students who have openly challenged him like Andrew does. However Andrew is not indestructible and succumbs to the tolling pressure. While you have to admire Andrew’s persistence, however it also says a lot about his attitude when he’s involved in a car accident. Instead of going to the hospital to get his injuries checked, he picks up his drumming sticks to make the band’s performance. It’s crazy! It’s not like Andrew was training to be a soldier or something but it’s obviously saying he’s willing to put his life on the line for the craft.
“So, imagine if Jones had just said, “Well, that’s okay, Charlie. That was all right. Good job.” So Charlie thinks to himself, “Well, shit, I did do a pretty good job.” End of story. No Bird. That to me is an absolute tragedy. But that’s just what the world wants now. And they wonder why jazz is dying.” – Fletcher
Again, the film returns back to the question I mentioned earlier – how much is too far? Are we in danger of putting off the next generation off their talent by discouraging them? Fletcher makes no apologies over his actions. A part of me imagines what Fletcher’s backstory was. Was he a failed musician? Was he given the same intense treatment by his teacher but didn’t make the cut? I guess we will never know because for him his actions serve a higher purpose. The fact that Fletcher makes a joke about another “Starbucks jazz album” being released speaks volumes about how he views the industry today. Where is that next superstar? The world seems to care more about quantity than quality. The hard work ethic seems to have disappeared and Fletcher wants to restore it, even if it means a total disregard of your character. He cares only about the music.
The ending is the perfect example of a battle of wits, defiance and the most incredible drum solo ever committed to film. At first it starts off as a humiliation but then it evolves into a territorial battle. Watching Andrew on the drums was like watching someone having an out of body experience, completely in the zone. The student finally becomes the master in dictating the tempo and the power he had over Fletcher. Although it’s worth mentioning that because we don’t see what happens after that performance, the ending can be viewed as open ended. Director Damien Chazelle leaves it with you to decide the state of Andrew and Fletcher’s relationship.
I can’t stress to you enough how good the acting is in this film. J.K. Simmons completely owns his role. It’s scary, bordering psychotic and worth his Oscar win.
Whiplash doesn’t punish its audience if you know nothing about jazz nor does it put you off unleashing your inner drummer (or maybe it has because of Simmons). But what it successfully does is engross you into that world, giving you the insight behind a dedicated craft. While there are aspects which are terrifying and intense, there are also genuine moments of defiance and determination, never giving up on a dream. That applies in all walks of life, whatever your life skill is.
Dedicate yourself to your passion and your passion will eventually reward you.
My passion is my love of films and Whiplash has certainly been the most refreshing film of this year and I highly recommended it.