On Whiplash

Now that I’ve seen Whiplash, even if it is two months into the new year, I feel like I’ve finally seen 2014’s best film. It wasn’t always easy or enjoyable to watch the expectedly intense and surprisingly bloody film, but the performances and concluding fifteen minutes made the whole gory experience worth it.

The film stars Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman, a jazz drumming prodigy of sorts in his first year at the Shaffer Conservatory, a prestigious New York City academy that Neiman repeatedly refers to as the country’s best music school. He is recruited for the studio band as an alternate by conductor Terence Fletcher, played brilliantly by J.K. Simmons. The film profiles Neiman’s masochistic attempts to earn a core spot on the drums in Fletcher’s band, aiming to achieve his exacting conductor’s unrealistic expectations of musical perfection. But Fletcher is a difficult conductor to work with to say the least. His unwavering desire for excellence is equal only to his willingness to utilize any means, however dehumanizing or humiliating or dangerous, of procuring it. Fletcher rains verbal storms of homophobic abuse on his students, hurls chairs at Neiman’s head when he’s the slightest bit off tempo, and kicks musicians out of his band for being unable to determine if they are out of tune.

Through a serendipitous turn of fate, Neiman is promoted after accidentally losing the core drummer’s sheet music just minutes prior to the start of a jazz competition. Having memorized the piece from which the movie takes its title, “Whiplash,” Neiman is able to perform in the competition without the aid of sheet music, unlike the previous core drummer. But in Fletcher’s band, promotions are tenuous at best. Prior to the band’s next competition, Neiman finds himself fighting again for the coveted drummer position against two other hopefuls. After the three musicians cycle through the seat behind the drum kit over the course of nearly 12 hours, each in turn trying to match Fletcher’s desired tempo, the conductor finally grants the position to Neiman.

As unreasonable as Fletcher’s expectations are, however, Neiman’s desire to fulfill them proves equally irrational. This next anecdote from the film is a bit of a spoiler, but I found it one of the most telling scenes of the film. When his bus breaks down en route to the competition which he worked so tirelessly to perform in, Neiman rents a car to drive the rest of the way. Arriving only a few minutes after call time, Neiman realizes his drum sticks are sitting on a chair in the rental office. Racing back to perform after picking up his sticks, Neiman gets into a horrific accident, slammed on the driver’s side by an eighteen-wheeler. Neiman crawls out of his overturned, crushed car, blood dripping from his head, and runs the rest of the way to the auditorium. He gets to his seat behind the drums in the nick of time, and Fletcher allows his to stay.

The horror of Fletcher’s leadership methods is not lost on Shaffer Conservatory, but his means are almost justified to viewers in light of a parable Fletcher repeatedly shares about Charlie Parker. As the story goes, Jo Jones hurled a cymbal at the young Charlie Parker after the latter musician made a mistake while the two were playing together. Rather than discouraging Parker, Jones’ violent response encouraged Parker to practice all the harder, leading him to become one of the music world’s greats. As Fletcher sees it, legendary players only realize their greatness under duress. If he doesn’t push students to their limits with such exacting force, they could miss out on becoming the next Charlie Parker. Neiman wants so badly to achieve the label of musical genius that he withstands Fletcher’s abuses, using them as fuel to practice obsessively, even breaking up with his girlfriend prematurely because he knows he will be too consumed with drumming to be a suitable partner. The whole film becomes an exploration of the Jones-Parker metaphor, raising questions about the morality of this story, causing viewers to equivocate on whether Fletcher’s methods are right or wrong.

Though the film is tense, at times painful, and shows little redemption to any of its cast, the ending is immensely satisfying without being either cheesy or too neat. Just when we viewers think maybe Fletcher has learned the errors of his ways, we find that he is exactly as unrelenting and resistant to change as we feared. And after we think all hope is lost for Neiman, he proves himself capable of breaking free from the shackles of his victimhood. The film culminates in a final musical sequence that is powerfully acted, brilliantly shot, and exceptionally emotional. It’s a rewarding payoff that makes all the pain and suffering along the way, for both Neiman and viewers, worthwhile.

But the performances themselves make even the most difficult scenes in Whiplash all the more tolerable. In lesser hands, the character of Terence Fletcher would have been played as a caricature, a drill sergeant-like conductor whose madness alienated audiences and whose essential humanity was impossible to discern. Simmons brings all the delicacy he can muster to his portrayal of a man defined by his intensity and violent force. When Fletcher fully explores the Charlie Parker metaphor in conversation with Neiman three quarters of the way into the film, we are finally able to understand him, to relate to him, to even forgive him for all the havoc he’s wreaked in the past hour and a half because we receive a glimpse of the logical, human side. Fletcher’s unconventional conducting methods are revealed as conscious choices made in service of the music, the ideal of perfection, and the possibility of molding just one young person into the next great legendary player. I can’t imagine anyone but J.K. Simmons pulling this feat off without making a mockery of Fletcher or playing the character to such an extreme that the film is completely unbearable. Simmons fully deserves every last accolade this film brought his way.

Miles Teller is also pretty remarkable, both for his performance as an actor and as a drummer. Apparently Teller played the drums prior to securing this role, but the degree of musical talent and training required to perform at the level required for this film would be hard for anyone to achieve, let alone a person who spent the majority of their life focused on becoming a career drummer. Beyond his musical performance, Teller plays Neiman, a character that is neither a conventionally likable protagonist nor a hero, in a arduously compelling way. In a rare scene away from the conservatory, Neiman is having dinner with his father (winningly portrayed by Paul Reiser) and some family friends. As his peers are esteemed for their mediocre academic and athletic achievements, Neiman fights to get recognition for earning a core spot in Fletcher’s band. When a disagreement ensues over whether music can be deemed subjectively perfect, your heart goes out to Teller as you realize that his only true place of belonging is under the tutelage of a cruel and exacting conductor.

Neiman is certainly misunderstood, and Teller strikes a delicate balance with his portrayal of both the relatable aspects of Neiman’s character and the exceptional. While we all can recognize the satisfaction of putting in hours of work to accomplish a specific aim, I doubt that many viewers fully identify with Neiman’s level of talent or singularity of focus, nor the drastic sacrifices he makes in service of them. When he breaks up with his new girlfriend to prevent the future heartbreak he foresees when drumming inevitably comes between them, you can’t help but feel a little respect for the guy. Neiman is wrong on so many levels; his delivery in this decision is abrupt and totally lacking in subtly, his reasoning is premature and extreme, his inability to concede his faults is frustrating. But Neiman also displays a commendable level of dedication to his goal, putting aside the typical concerns of a young adult male in service of a larger end. This scene typifies how Teller is so winning; the audience will forgive his irrational logic, even support it, as long as we ultimately get to see him succeed. I had my doubts about this guy after seeing his revolting performance in the unremarkable film The Spectacular Now, but Teller quickly proved his worth to me in the time it took to finish Whiplash.

The film is available now on Amazon, iTunes, and all those good other digital outlets.