Whiplash: Damien Chazelle’s ‘Whiplash’ explores the beginnings of a truly great drummer pushed to his limits by a maniacal and unorthodox mentor.
How far should we go to achieve greatness? To what lengths should we be pushed to realise our full potential? These questions are the driving force behind Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash; the story of a young, talented but directionless drummer, Andrew Neiman, (Miles Teller) as he is drawn into an ultra competitive music conservatory by an unorthodox and extreme mentor, Terence Fletcher (J.K Simmons).
The search for greatness.
The movie centres around the raw depiction of our protagonists transformation from a passive and shy prodigy to a cut-throat-determined and confident drummer through proving himself to a fierce, intimidating and almost maniacal musical mentor in search of the next giant of Jazz. Our protagonist doesn’t know this yet but soon he’ll find himself pushed to his mental and physical limits by a man who demands more than just talent.
A quiet protagonist.
Andrew, or Neiman as he is most numerously referred to, is a scattered, hero-worshipping student of Schaffer – the best music school in the country. Usually spending his days turning pages for the drummer of the band his talent and interest goes mostly unnoticed. He chooses to sneak into practice rooms to pursue his passion privately until during one such moment of privacy, he catches the cold eye of Fletcher who drills and tests him, initially rejecting his attempts at impressing him. Andrew drifts through the rest of his life in a similar quiet fashion. Having few friends, he goes to the movies with his father, struggles to ask a girl, Nicole, on a date and idolises the drumming greats like Buddy Rich.
However Andrew is approached by Fletcher and invited to join the most prestigious music conservatory in the school, ran by Fletcher himself but he’s impossible to truly impress as he coolly waves Andrew into position as the understudy of his current core drummer. It’s here we’re introduced to Fletcher’s maniacal approach to mentorship.
He runs his band like a military regime, somewhat reminiscent of the boot camp from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Fletcher aggressively drills and scolds his band, homing in on the tiniest discrepancies – the fear in his students is palpable. It’s not just through soul-crushing put downs, Neiman quickly learns that Fletcher isn’t afraid to get physical if he see’s fit. This is something that has us questioning “Is that even legal?” – but the movie is first and foremost about the bitter pursuit of greatness whatever the cost, mere talent is not enough. Andrew quickly falls from the good graces of both the class and Fletcher. Struggling to adapt to his new environment he becomes hard and bitter, alienating those around him, caring more for his ascension to musical greatness.
A stark transformation.
Chazelle’s eye for detail shines through in Andrew’s bloody practice scenes in which he pushes himself to his mental and physical limits and pours his blood, sweat and tears into his goal in the most literal sense. Pushed by Fletcher, he walks the thin line of alienating the audience themselves through his unsympathetic and all consuming desire to be great but retains our support, remembering the catalyst for his transformation is his brutal mentor. In his Oscar winning role, J.K Simmons is intense, terrifying, darkly humorous and oddly inspirational. Do not expect your average popcorn flick featuring kindly, mystic mentors and starry-eyed hero’s, the two musicians are truly pitted against each other in Whiplash through Fletcher’s antagonistic approach to mentorship. Throughout his journey Andrew, finds himself in increasingly physically, emotionally and professionally dangerous scenario’s and this is what makes Whiplash so powerful – it’s a fresh take on the story of a rising star; brutal and blunt.
That’s not to say that Whiplash doesn’t aim to make you crack a smile. J.K Simmons delivers countless creative and memorable sardonic put downs whilst Miles Teller’s naive protagonist stumbles and embarrasses himself. This is a movie with its heart in a strange but compelling place.