Make no mistake, even amongst those who love Whiplash – of whom there should be plenty – there will be much division with regard to Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the music teacher who refuses to accept anything other than perfection and is willing to do whatever it takes to get it. Fletcher’s antics have more in common with the sadistic drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket than any previous onscreen teacher character. There are no Erin Gruwell’s or John Keating’s here and much of any debate around Fletcher’s tactics must inevitably be focussed on whether the ends justify the means. Is physical and psychological torment acceptable if they do ultimately enable the student to reach the absolute peak of their abilities? I’m not sure if there is a definitive answer and I’m not sure the film takes a position either way, but Whiplash – written and directed by 29-year-old Damien Chazelle – is certainly a powerful exploration of the determination to succeed in a world in which scrutiny, judgement and condemnation for the slightest of errors are as certain as the sunrise.
It is so great to see Simmons – who is so often confined to bit parts and supporting roles despite his considerable talents – presented with a role of substance and he grabs the opportunity with gusto, presenting Fletcher as an egregious egotist who simply will not tolerate second best. From throwing furniture to calling his students ‘faggots’ and ‘cocksuckers’ and pushing them relentlessly in rehearsal until they are physically and emotionally spent, Fletcher is unyielding in his pursuit of perfection. It is hard to argue when Fletcher declares that the most dangerous two words in the English language are “good job”. As such, the film can be seen as a critique of the contemporary malaise in which encouragement is a teaching tool and everybody gets a prize just for taking part. Can such an approach ever foster true talent? Certainly, Fletcher doesn’t think so and, despite his bombastic bluster, a place in his acclaimed jazz ensemble is the most sought after amongst students at the prestigious Shaffer Music Conservatory in New York. When talented young drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) is afforded such an opportunity, he has no idea what torment awaits.
Andrew is confident in his ability as a drummer but insecure in almost every other aspect of his life. When not rehearsing, he is with his father Jim (Paul Reiser) at the movies. He finally builds up the courage to ask Nicole (Glee’s Melissa Benoist) – the girl who works the refreshment counter at the cinema – out on a date but soon finds himself on a downward spiral of self-doubt and physical exhaustion. It doesn’t help matters that Jim – all fatherly love in their moments alone – mocks Andrew’s aspirations to be a professional musician at a family dinner. In fact, the disingenuous Jim might just be the most dislikeable character in the film; his undermining of Andrew’s talent and ambitions is much more sinister than anything Fletcher ever does. Backing up from The Spectacular Now, Teller is terrific once again as Andrew, never presenting him as too cocky but exposing the spark within that drives him to be the best he can possibly be.
The fact this movie is so spectacularly successful as a piece of entertaining, thought-provoking cinema is almost entirely due to the performances of the co-leads. Teller and Simmons could not be better and it is no surprise that there is already Oscar buzz around the latter. Fletcher could so easily come across as nothing but a heartless bully, but there is much more to him than that. Yes, his approach may be unorthodox and even unacceptable in the eyes of many, but it works, as the marvellous final scene – an on-stage showdown between teacher and student – emphatically demonstrates. Of course, as we can expect from any teacher who dares to be unconventional and is prepared to push their students to their limits, Fletcher finds himself under fire from do-gooders desperate to bring him undone. Of course, the soundtrack – including the song from which the film draws its title – is sublime and plays such an integral part in the narrative. It is through the music that the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher is formed and fractured. Yes, there are a few things that grate – such as the lack of character development afforded Nicole and the lack of exposition given to a key narrative moment that I won’t expound upon here in the interests of those who have yet to see it – but overall Whiplash is a welcome – if at times uncomfortable – journey into the world of the gifted artist and a mentor who simply will not accept anything but the very best.