“I don’t think people understood what it was I was doing at Shaffer. I wasn’t there to conduct. Any fucking moron can wave his arms and keep people in tempo. I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is… an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong. The next Charlie Parker. I told you about how Charlie Parker became Charlie Parker, right?”
“Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head.”
Whiplash (2014) is essentially a feel-bad-feel-good-feel-bad-again-start-panicking film aimed, primarily (I think), at a late teen audience, featuring very familiar tropes concerning overcoming the odds and taking several devastating blows before ultimately (to a debatable degree) triumphing. On such terms, and by adding that it’s about a music tutor and erstwhile novice and features long scenes of often iffy drumming, it seems like a hard sell. But, honestly, Whiplash is a brilliant piece of cinema.
Miles Teller’s Andrew Nieman has a much-coveted spot at Juilliard (never named as such but clearly, that’s the model); obsesses about and wishes to emulate Buddy Rich; is clearly struggling gamely with the sticks and is far from up to speed. His lonely practice session is interrupted in the opening scene by J K Simmons’ Terence Fletcher, who exudes gruff, nonchalant charisma, a kind of wired, urbane disinterest, and who demands to see a little of what Andrew has. Before Andrew has finished his routine, the door has swung emphatically and prematurely shut; for now at least, and he’s back to a frustrated audience of one.
Andrew wanders through the hallowed corridors clearly not attuned to the casually comfortable wavelength of the place. He sneaks past the hives and clusters of other students, eager to slip away unnoticed and continue being a loner obsessive. This is a guy who regularly visits the cinema with his dad. He cautiously peers into the hushed rigor of Fletcher‘s student session before ducking out of sight when the latter catches him. So far, so dutifully hitting all the generic notes.
Andrew even begins an awkwardly sweet relationship with a girl working at the local cinema. They share mutual tales of alienated woe and bond over their unclubbable unease. What might be cringe worthy and deeply awkward brings them closer together; all moments that might, in other films, be clear cues to imminent collapse, manage instead to be just the right thing to dispel doubt. Andrew will eventually bring matters to a hasty, cruel end by suggesting that he can have only one love in his life, other than Buddy Rich, and it can never be her, which ups the ante that bit more in a film that slowly and effectively ratchets up the anxiety throughout to the breathless extent that, as it ended, I realized I was gripping my chair and leaning forward. How often does that happen? Last time it happened to me was in 1996 I think.
It’s at the point JK Simmons is fully, properly introduced that the film becomes something a little special. As a looming presence he serves as a mere prelude to the mayhem upcoming: once he has chosen Andrew to join his deeply regimented troupe the film seriously takes off, and never lands. Even now, a few weeks after watching it, I wonder about the two main protagonists. Which is a bit weird for such a no-frills effort, but which serves as perfect testament to the kind of over-spilling torque and momentum Whiplash produces.
So we now have the classic master and apprentice setup. (“We have a squeaker, class.”) Andrew is instructed to arrive at 6 a.m. He’s been out with the not-quite girlfriend and rises late: he throws a crumpled shirt on and pelts for the recording suite. There’s no-one else there. Other students begin to file in just before nine, when Fletcher finally arrives. The sadistic preparation for unlikely musical greatness is underway.
Thus follows a cruel and abusive version of what Mr. Miyagi put Ralf Macchio through (and Teller is not entirely dissimilar, physically, to Macchio — although he looks more like Elvis): mental torture, a maddeningly mercurial taunt-and-advocacy crash course in tolerant, impossibly-arduous purgatory. Here’s one of the reasons the film is so effective: it plays on our conditioning to the eventual payoff such diligent adversity promises. We know that Andrew, if he pushes himself through unimaginable feats of pain and shame and continues to cymbal-crash through his own ceiling of capability, musical immortality will be his, right? Right? You continue to wonder if that’s even part of the deal . . . the idea that it might not be makes the whole thing that bit more compelling and grueling . . . and you’re still not sure at the end. I’ll get to that very shortly.
There are, by the way, no real moments of encouragement other than the briefest of confirmations, on two occasions, that Andrew has earned his “part.” Fletcher really doesn’t care, about Andrew at least: he cares only about the music he might have in him. We see, at one point, amidst the turbulence of hellish provocation and swift character assassination, this incorrigibly mean and withering tutor break from convention to slip a jazz CD on for the class to appreciate. He provides commentary at the end: a former student was playing on the track, a student that day confirmed dead in a car crash. As Fletcher cries at this, a clever bind in brought to bear on the audience. We now know he’s human, and we want him to like Andrew in order that this side be brought out more; we know he means it and that the tirades and pummeling antagonism in the name of music will not abate. Witness: a fantastically wringing three-way drum duel that seems as though it will never end, but eventually does, blood and sweat and a few tears rolling off cymbals and Andrew still in the chair, just. But things (i.e., Fletcher and the kind of indefatigable determination that suggests latent, feeding insanity) aren’t going to ease off.
As the film’s intensity continues to notch ever up and a crucial musical competition approaches, matters become almost unbearably poised. The dream teeters, and whilst chasing it, with minutes to spare, in a car with hastily retrieved sticks Andrew is hit square by a truck. That signals, despite a bloodied, injured, futile last-gasp leap towards his ultimate goal (and a brief fight with his former militant mentor), the end of his time, not with Fletcher, but with his immediate musical aims at the school. The drum-kit is packed away; a new life and goals ventured towards. The test is over; he failed.
He turns against Fletcher: he goes on record as a corroborator of another former pupil filing an abuse lawsuit against the music tyrant. He wishes to remain nameless, but the blow is struck.
And then, around the corner from his new apartment, he spots a handwritten invitation for passers-by to consider that evening’s musical entertainment. Special guest: Terence Fletcher on piano. He steps in to watch and catches Fletcher’s eye at the end of the set. They have drinks; Fletcher invites him to join a band that will cover all the same stuff he’s been taught.
And then the film’s showpiece: Andrew is thrown to the wolves. Huge audience, dad in the wings, and the opening piece is something he’s never learned. It’s at this point that Fletcher lets him on it all — he knew who had spoken up against him, signaling his demise.
To say too much more would spoil matters. Andrew walks off after the first number, and Fletcher is vindicated once again. “I knew you didn’t have it in you.” But he quickly returns, and the real duel of the film begins. The ambiguousness of the final moments reels you off on a plateau of euphoric, ear-ringing befuddlement. The fearlessness of the two brilliant leads is matched by director Damien Chazelle’s ferocious precision and mercilessly metered-out emotional punishment. The encore lasts for weeks.