Director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, though critically admired, did not reach a huge audience upon its release last November, but since its five Oscar nominations it is making the rounds again, and deserves to be seen by anyone interested in music, first-rate acting, and the art of film. Chazelle, not yet 30, wrote and directed this movie, based loosely on his own experiences as a student drummer studying under a harsh and rigorous mentor. He originally filmed an 18-minute short with the same title—the name of a Hank Levy jazz composition—which won the Sundance short film jury award in 2013. For that original short, produced by Jason Reitman among others, Chazelle was able to cast J.K. Simmons (who had worked on Reitman’s film Juno) in the pivotal role of the band director. In Chazelle’s full-length expansion of that original film, Simmons reprises his role in a memorable and sometimes shocking performance that has already garnered him a Golden Globe and a Screen Actor’s Guild award for Best Supporting Actor, and has made him the man to beat in the Oscar competition for that category. What kind of a music teacher is he? Let’s just say this is not exactly Mr. Holland’s Opus.
Indeed Simmons, more sadistic drill-instructor than teacher, has viewers jokingly calling the film “Full-Metal Julliard.” Essentially the plot of the film is this: Andrew Neyman, played convincingly by Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) is an aspiring 19-year-old drummer studying at a prestigious New York conservatory (based, presumably, on Julliard). His obsession with jazz and his single-minded ambition to become the next Buddy Rich bring him into the sphere of Terence Fletcher (Simmons), the most talented and feared instructor at the school, who conducts the conservatory’s top jazz ensemble. Once accepted into Fletcher’s band, Andrew witnesses the instructor’s over-the-top cruelty that involves mind-games as well as verbal and occasional physical abuse in a ruthless push for perfection. After his initial revulsion at Fletcher’s methods, Andrew succumbs to the obsession to become one of the greats: we are told, several times—by Fletcher—that Charlie Parker did not become Charlie Parker until drummer Jo Jones once threw a cymbal at his head, inspiring Parker to work fanatically harder and achieve immortality. In the course of the film, Andrew practices with zealous fervor, pushing himself until his hands bleed, after which he plunges them into cold water, bandages them, and pushes himself even harder.
The rest of Andrew’s life is treated almost as a subplot in the film, which in fact it is for Andrew. He has no friends, and manages to alienate most of the people he does know, including his fellow band members. He goes to movies with his father, a high school English teacher who was once an aspiring writer, played by Paul Reiser. He very nearly has a girlfriend—the concessions worker at the movie house, a perky Fordham freshman named Nicole (Melissa Benoist, of TV’s Glee), with an undecided major who has no clear goals of her own but to whom Andrew seems to relate on a human level far better than he relates to anyone else in the film. But it is a relationship that seems to get in the way of his monomaniacal obsession with his art, and which he cuts off while sitting in a booth at a restaurant with no show of emotion. Most of the audience must agree with Nicole’s last word to him as she leaves the restaurant: “What is wrong with you?”
What’s wrong with Andrew is that he’s buying what Fletcher is selling: He wants to be the next Charlie Parker and is willing to let Fletcher keep throwing metaphorical cymbals at his head to push him to that level. By the midway point of the film it seems clear that Andrew has begun to equate pleasing the impossibly demanding Fletcher with achieving his dream. He is led to more and more improbable lengths to remain in Fletcher’s good graces, and—even though he clearly hates the instructor at the same time—cannot be brought to completely abandon his worship of him even after it appears (little bit of a spoiler alert coming up) that Fletcher’s bullying has caused serious harm to past students, as well. The audience is invited to participate—albeit grudgingly—in Andrew’s admiration when late in the film Fletcher feels compelled to justify his methods: The enemy of greatness is “good enough,” he implies, asserting that his bullying methods drive students to achieve the absolute pinnacle of their abilities— “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than, ‘Good job,’ ” he tells Andrew.
There are two particular problems that audiences and critics have had in interpreting the film. The first is this: a large number of its viewers come away feeling that Chazelle’s intent in the film is to validate Fletcher’s methods. If ultimately they drive Andrew to become the next Buddy Rich, aren’t they successful? One critic who disliked the film complained that “We’re supposed to think that Terence’s tough love is more ‘honest’ than the usual pussyfooting tutelage.” In fact, though, Chazelle makes no such claim about what the viewers are “supposed to think.” If Andrew chooses to follow Fletcher, it does not mean the audience is supposed to see that as a good thing. It may well be—we see the results in Andrew’s drive and in his playing. But we also see the results in his relationships, or lack of them, with others. Chazelle makes no comments. The viewers are left to decide for themselves what the moral of the story is.
Secondly, even many of the critics who admire the film have commented that a number of scenes stretch an audience’s credulity. There is no denying the truth of this charge. First, no teacher at any level would be permitted to abuse, insult, and hector students as Fletcher does. Furthermore, the length to which Andrew goes to perform in Fletcher’s band become so over the top that they tax our willing suspension of disbelief, and the final scene in particular seems more nightmare than reality. As one critic put it, “several turns of the plot past the halfway point seem more than contrived.”
This is quite true. But I would contend that this is not a flaw in the movie: The story is set in a moral landscape, not a realistic one. That is because it is, quite literally, a modern morality play. As in every morality play, the action really takes place within the main character’s psyche. In the medieval tradition of the morality play, an everyman figure must choose between salvation an sin, between the forces of good and the forces of evil, usually represented by an angelic figure on the one hand and a demonic one on the other, each of whom attempts to entice or convince the protagonist to his side. In Whiplash, it is no accident that Fletcher dresses in black, that he lurks outside of doors in the shadows, that, like Satan in the wilderness, he promises a wealth of kingdoms if Andrew will bow down and worship him.
On the other side is Reiser as the angelic force, Andrew’s father, trying to humanize his son and to counteract the antisocial influence Fletcher is having on him. A key scene underscoring this occurs at a family dinner Andrew attends with his father, aunt and cousins. Piqued by their lack of interest in his own achievements, he insults his cousins’ own accomplishments (playing football for only an NCAA level three college!), and arguing with his father that it is better to die (like Charlie Parker) a friendless addict at 34 and be remembered for a great achievement, than to die at 90 content and happy, surrounded by friends and family. It becomes obvious at this point that Andrew has internalized Fletcher’s philosophy, and that he has adopted as well his mentor’s disdain for anyone who might be content to live a balanced life rather than strive frantically for perfection and achievement. His father, the failed writer, has found contentment in his life as a teacher, and models for Andrew the importance of human relationships. In a scene toward the end of the film, Andrew has a choice to go off with his father or to take the path of Fletcher, and his choice, like Everyman’s in the morality play, will determine his whole future.
I don’t mean to suggest that the characters in the film are merely abstractions. There is no doubt that Fletcher and Andrew are complex and complicated characters, given real existence by the considerable talent of the two principle actors. We can see that Andrew suffers some remorse at losing Nicole, with whom he tries to reconnect later in the film. And there are layers of motivation behind Simmons’ brilliant tour de force with the character of Fletcher: Does he feel remorse at the death of a former student? Does he truly want to help students or is it all a power trip? Is he a sociopath or a sincere but overzealous teacher? Or is he taking out his own frustrations at not being a great performer himself on those who still have a chance to be? Part of the skill of Simmons’ portrayal is that all of these possibilities remain open, and many are probably true simultaneously, as with any real human being.
Chazelle has created a marvelous film, shooting most of it in close-up in confined spaces, increasing a feeling of claustrophobic tension, with quick cuts that seem to follow the beat of a metronome, or a drum, so that you will find it hard not to feel as if you are yourself under the pressure Andrew endures. You may end up nauseous from nervous tension, as my wife did. This is not a movie to go to for relaxation. But it is one of the more impressive movies of the year. I award it three Tennysons and half a Shakespeare.