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Non-Review Review: Whiplash

The joy of Whiplash is in how the film subverts so many of the conventions of the “unconventional teacher pushes promising young student” subgenre. A one-sentence plot summary for the film suggest an inspirational and life-affirming tale. Andrew heads to a prestigious music school to hone his skills on the drums, and encounters an obnoxious and confrontational teacher who pushed him to his limits. One can already hear the applause, see the inevitable hug, feel the radiating mutual respect.

Whiplash carefully and meticulously subverts these expectations, avoiding many of the familiar plot beats that one might expect from a story like this. There’s a raw, gruelling honesty to the story – Whiplash is not a story calibrated or tailored to make the audience feel particularly comfortable or happy. Indeed, it addresses its central themes with a refreshing candidness. It asks some very tough questions about honing talent and the responsibilities of a teacher. It doesn’t offer any easy answers.

Anchored in two compelling central performances and a beautiful soundtrack, Whiplash builds to a beautifully cathartic climax, one that refuses to wrap too tight a bow around an intriguing little film.

Stick around...

Stick around…

Terence Fletcher is a piece of work. A conductor and teacher at the Shaffer Conservatory, Fletcher methodology consists primarily of bullying. He verbally and physically abuses his students, pushing them to reach for glory. He tries to rationalise and justify his methods, arguing that he inspires his students to fulfil their potential by pushing them past their limits. To Fletcher, the two most damaging words in the English language are “good job.” Humiliation and intimidation are just two of his tactics.

Over the course of Whiplash, Fletcher focuses his attention on Andrew Neiman. Andrew is a first-year student who has committed himself to his art form. Fletcher proceeds to push Andrew as hard as he can, trying to stretch him past breaking point in the hopes of demonstrating his raw musical talent. The rehearsal sequences, as shot by director and writer Damien Chazelle, are delightfully uncomfortable as Fletcher heaps more and more pressure on to his young student.

Just looking for an excuse to drum him out...

Just looking for an excuse to drum him out…

It would be easy for Whiplash to humanise Fletcher. The script could have easily offered some trite justification for his actions – he might be a grumpy widower, or a failed prodigy, or the father of a failure. Whiplash doesn’t try anything so crude. It is content to let Fletcher be who he needs to be. It is confident enough to trust the character’s motivations and methods. The film cleverly avoids softening Fletcher; it never seems too worried about what the audience thinks of Fletcher at any given moment.

It is never afraid that the viewer might thing Terence Fletcher is a horrible human being, and instead allows the character to stand by his central philosophy. He has a reason for what he does, and Whiplash trusts the audience to make sense of it on their own terms. There is something very brave in this decision, this reluctance to temper a character like this. Ironically, the film’s reluctance to add some trite justification or back story ultimately makes Fletcher a more compelling and complicated character.

That's no way to conduct yourself...

That’s no way to conduct yourself…

To be fair, J.K. Simmons deserves a great deal of credit for his. His portrayal of Fletcher is – if you’ll pardon the pun – note-perfect. Simmons subtly and cleverly humanises Fletcher, inviting the audience to try and figure out exactly what side of the character is genuine and what side is exaggerated for effect. Does Fletcher think that he is doing his students a service? Does he think that he is making the world a better place? Or is this simply Terence Fletcher’s attempt to make himself feel important and significant in the grand scheme of things?

Simmons cleverly keeps the audience guessing, suggesting that any and all of these possibilities may apply. Simmons is a master at modulating a performance, with characters who can frequently alternate between extremes within a single take. Simmons casts Fletcher as a complex and multifaceted character, one who might vehemently mount his own defence even as he commits indefensible actions. Fletcher is a fascinating character, one who seems bound to prompt a number of wildly different opinions from audience-members – even from the same audience member.

The stage is set...

The stage is set…

That said, Whiplash is very much a two-hander. One of the movie’s more interesting questions is how Andrew makes himself complicit in Fletcher’s abuse. At one point, Andrew clarifies that he doesn’t just want to be great, he wants to be “one of the greats.” He aspires to be one of the most important and influential drummers in the history of music, which is no modest goal. Andrew is driven by ego, and he allows Fletcher to push him past his own limitations. He bleeds for his art, risking serious muscle or tendon damage in pursuit of his objective.

Whiplash invites the audience to question Andrew’s philosophy. Both Andrew and Fletcher make frequent reference to jazz musician Charlie Parker. Fletcher uses the famous story about Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at Parker to justify his style of teaching. However, it is worth noting that Charlie Parker died at the age of thirty-five due to substance abuse. His body was so weathered and worn out that the coroner thought he was between fifty and sixty years of age. Is that lifestyle something to aspire towards? If that level of perfection has so high a cost, can it be justified?

Are you JK-ing?

Are you JK-ing?

Whiplash refuses to romanticise Andrew and his quest. The film makes it quite clear that Andrew has no real friends to speak of. He can be aloof, and difficult. He doesn’t necessarily play well with others. His ambitions have a very high cost. Miles Teller gives Andrew the necessary drive and aloofness to sell that narrative. Teller is charming and compelling, but he also keeps the audience at a healthy distance, making it clear that Andrew is devoted to his objectives.

Whiplash isn’t a feel-good story about how natural talent prevails. It is a story about the kinds of sacrifices that have to be made to perform on that level. Whiplash is uncomfortable viewing, a film that refuses to play into the clich├ęs of this sort of story. The movie builds to one of the year’s most cathartic climaxes, a moment that feels earned. There is a lot of pain and anguish leading up to that moment, and the beauty of Whiplash is that asks the audience whether this was all worthwhile, rather than simply telling them.


4 Responses

  1. Great review, and good point about how the film subverts the teacher-student movies. I almost thought it felt like a sports film (about an art).

  2. Does anyone think Mozart’s father was nurturing and understanding? Or Clara Schumann’s father, hers and then Robert Schumann’s teacher when he taped weights to his fingers to catch up on the early years he missed? I don’t think so.Caravaggio grew up in a basement one room with a number of siblings where the only light was up towards the ceilings, so we have his sensitive perception of light in his paintings of clustered humans.He apprenticed long and hard before he became a master and he probably didn’t eat well while he did it. I am not excusing Fletcher nor praising him.Andrew is certainly complicit.And this manic obsession and devotion – here a violent instrument like the drums – is what is required to be one of the greats.It’s not terrible to destroy all else to accomplish that.Few of would want to though.

    • Yep. I mean, it is ultimately a personal choice that people have to make – what are they willing to do to develop a truly spectacular gift instead of settling for mediocrity. And I think the beauty of Whiplash is that it never condemns Fletcher or Andrew (nor lets them off the hook), and trusts the audience to make their own judgement. That’s a very brave and daring decision, and I think that Whiplash is one of those films that really generates great conversation.

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