Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, JK Simmons
A stitch running across the side of his bald pate. Tight black T-shirt tucked into black trousers hitched up. Back straight, eyes on the prowl, and that face, oh that face, with lines criss-crossing it like the deep creases of a grotesque mask. And then the right hand snaps up, in a tight fist, and demands silence. JK Simmons doesn’t crack a whip, but it is a whiplash all right — ringing across his classroom, New York’s concert halls, and now movie theatres.
The object of most of his lashings couldn’t look more different. Andrew Neiman (Teller), all of 19, has soft, warm features, hands that stray towards fleshy, and hair that flops on his head in that very pop musician kind of way. He is accommodating and uncertain, languid and laconic.
In commanding performances, Fletcher (Simmons) and Neiman clash across drum sets in a music school that is considered the best in America. Fletcher is the teacher to be under, and Neiman believes he deserves to be there. However, Neiman doesn’t know what he is getting into, as Fletcher doesn’t stop at any abuse, mental or physical, to get “the best out of students”. He uses sexual innuendos to humiliate his pupils and takes much pleasure in Neiman’s ordinary family life to put him down (his “writer” father is actually a school teacher, and his mother left them when Neiman was a child).
Director Chazelle, who also wrote the story based on his own experience at school, packs in tension and violence worthy of situations far more sinister into rooms otherwise ringing with amazing music. You dread, as much as Neiman and his co-band players, the moment when Fletcher walks in through the door. Simmons makes even the small walk up to the coat and hat hangar simmer with restrained aggression.
Blood is spilled often as well, as Neiman pushes himself and practises far beyond what his fingers can tolerate. Fletcher plays drummers against one another, delights in his students tripping up, and leaves them even more confused when he sheds unexpected tears for a student who died young. The student’s music that he plays as tribute is a soft, sweet piece that says as much about Fletcher’s complexities as when he is himself revealed to be a piano player who revels in easy melodies.
Fletcher explains his behaviour as the need to push students to be the best, to not be content with mediocrity. “The two worst words in the English language,” he says, are “good job”.
The sentence itself doesn’t really sum up Fletcher’s behaviour behind that conductor stand, and the film explains little by way of what exactly he is doing for his students other than making them practise hard. On the contrary, it establishes rather too literally a line between Neiman’s own father and his limited ambitions, and his own and Fletcher’s soaring expectations.
One can also question the focus on Neiman and even the other drummers, to the complete exclusion of the rest of the band. It’s difficult to imagine they don’t discuss their monster teacher the second he steps out that door. The grand finale — predictable and yet deeply satisfying — is the most obvious example of this focus. It’s unfortunate that in the force of Simmon’s performance (nominated also for an Oscar), Teller’s hasn’t received as much attention.
Jazz lovers have also criticised the film’s music. While that is a rather unjustified charge, the near absence of Blacks in what is essentially an African American music form is jarring.
That said, “good job” is certainly not an adjective one can attach to Whiplash. It’s a film with only “greatness” in its sights, unflinching of drawing blood and blows — and its share of Fletchers.