Whether it’s the steady patter of a light rain against the ragged pavement or the rattle of automobiles dipping in and out of potholes, New York City serves as a hub of unintentional rhythm. In Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, the director utilizes establishing shots of the bustling city, paired with the upbeat tempo of a snare drum to set the pace for our fast-talking protagonist. College student Andrew Neiman, played by the devastatingly vulnerable Miles Teller, is a young aspiring jazz drummer attending the Schaffer Music Conservatory of New York. Andrew spends his days turning pages of sheet music for seasoned upperclassmen as an alternate musician in the school’s second-tier jazz band and spends his nights sharpening his skills on the drum kit. Terrence Fletcher, the university’s conductor of the nationally ranked first-tier jazz band, sees potential in Andrew and selects him for a coveted seat on stage with the group. Fletcher, who is played by the captivating and polarizing J.K. Simmons, is a foul-mouthed, quick-tempered instructor who lacks the patience and empathy for those who can’t keep pace with his demanding rehearsal schedule.
Unable to control his aggressive tendencies, Andrew is exposed to the violent and verbally abusive conductor who hurls orchestra chairs across the room in frustration and shouts with reckless abandon. Whiplash chronicles Fletcher’s drive to create the next great jazz musician, and the unlikely candidate he finds in the jittery freshman who aspires to be one of the best, but lacks the ideal amount of skill and proper training.
As the film presses forward, we see Andrew push himself to improve upon his skills, becoming obsessively devoted to his craft. We watch on in discomfort as Andrew passionately pounds away on the drums, screaming in pain, only pausing to carefully apply pieces of gauze to the open sores that form on his palms after hours of exhausting practice. Andrew is desperate for some form of recognition as he steadily rises through the ranks, and finally earns his spot as core drummer in the ensemble. Fletcher is reluctant to give his students the credit they deserve because he feels as though, “there are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” Fletcher doesn’t see God-given talent when he looks at Andrew; he sees the desire to be the best. And this is something Fletcher believes he can exploit and stretch until he has molded Andrew into the perfect musician. A sense of hopelessness washes over moviegoers as Andrew devotes more and more of himself to his music, sacrificing relationships along the way, and showing little regard for his overall well being.
J.K. Simmons delivers a harrowing performance as a teacher that demands excellence at all costs, which is juxtaposed by Miles Teller’s heartbreaking portrayal of a talented, hopeful musician who withers away both physically and mentally under the pressure to achieve perfection. It’s a touching and tragic piece that keeps the audience on edge, both fearing Fletcher and fearing for Andrew. You’ll be feeling the impact of Whiplash long after you’ve left the theater.