What does it take to be truly great at your chosen craft? What sorts of sacrifices have to be made to reach those goals? Does it require a total focus, at the cost of personal relationships or even simple pleasures? Does it require pushing yourself to the edges of what might be considered safe — or sane?
These are the questions director Damien Chazelle poses in Whiplash, one of the most compelling films of the year.
Miles Teller plays Andrew Neyman, a 19-year-old jazz drummer in his first year at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City. When we first encounter Andrew, it’s apparent that he wants to be very good, putting in the sort of late-night, solitary practice that will improve and sharpen his skills as a musician. But once he catches the attention of instructor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), who directs the school’s award-winning band, the student’s ambition becomes clear.
Playing in Fletcher’s studio band means being one of the best at Shaffer. So when the instructor plucks him away from his first-year classmates, it inspires Andrew, confirming that he’s on the right track, that he can be as good as he believes he is. Initially, Fletcher seems like a nurturing sort of coach, encouraging Andrew and suggesting he listen to the greats, like Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. But the teacher also employs some mind games, telling the kid to report for a session at 6 a.m., then making him wait — alone — until the upperclassmen musicians arrive at 9 a.m.
Of course, Andrew does wait, which seems to indicate he’s passed some sort of test. But that’s only the beginning of what Fletcher intends to put him through. The teacher is anything but nurturing. He’s a hard-driving, cruel relentless bully who yells at his students and humiliates them, trying to push them to their breaking point. If they’re tough enough to withstand the abuse and stay, then maybe the hopefuls have a chance at achieving greatness. If not, perhaps they just don’t have what it takes to be great.
With his portrayal of Fletcher, Simmons reminds us just how imposing and terrifying an actor he can be. That’s easy to forget when watching him portray the kindly professor in those Farmers Insurance commercials, the blind father on canceled NBC sitcom Growing Up Fisher, or even the over-the-top curmudgeon J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. But Simmons first drew notice for playing neo-Nazi inmate Vern Schillinger on HBO’s Oz, one of the more disturbing characters on television at the time.
But with his bald head that almost makes him look reptilian, a preferred wardrobe of tight black t-shirts that show off his biceps (Anderson Cooper would be envious), and his angry gestures (basically punches) that command his musicians to stop playing — even after hearing just a few notes that tell him it’s not what he wants, Fletcher is fearsome. He’s a drill sergeant, a boxing coach. These students might as well be in the ring with their instruments, as they’re mentally and verbally beaten. You may never look at jazz the same way again.
Is this abusive sort of approach necessary from a teacher? Or does an instructor have to drive his pupils — even by unconventional means — to get something out of them that may otherwise have not been attainable?
And what about the students who tolerate that treatment? Is the promise of being pushed to the limits of acceptable social behavior worth the mental and physical toll it exacts? Andrew scoffs at the achievements of his football-playing cousins because they play at a Division III school. If you’re not going to play in the NFL, what’s the point? He pushes away his girlfriend, believing that their relationship will hold him back from his ambitions.
Are these people crazy? Or is becoming a sociopath what’s necessary to achieve greatness — in any endeavor, but especially art? That’s the challenge Whiplash poses to anyone who watches it. Neither of the main characters seem particularly likable, though you may find yourself eventually taking a side by the end of the movie.
Oh, and you’ll also be exhausted by the time the credits roll, as Chazelle keeps turning up the intensity until everything on the screen seems ready to explode. But just like the students at Shaffer, you’ll find the ordeal is absolutely worth the experience.