How far is too far to push a young man on the brink of genius? Is it telling him that his mother left him as a child because he didn’t hit his double bass drum quick enough, or is it hurling a chair at him and slapping him repeatedly across the face? Or, maybe, there is no such thing as going too far when brilliance is on the line.
These are the questions that “Whiplash,” a film by writer-director Damien Chazelle about a jazz drummer at a prestigious New York City music conservatory, asks its audience.
“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” And so goes the philosophy of Terence Fletcher, played by JK Simmons, the terrifying conductor who has the ability to either destroy the spirit or make greatness out of Andrew.
Andrew, played by Miles Teller, is a first-year student at the fictional Shaffer Academy who starts out as a talented but meek drummer who often goes to the movies with his dad and has a sweet crush on the concession stand girl.
But soon after Fletcher notices Andrew and puts him in his studio band, he is sent on a self-destructive downward spiral. Andrew brings his dorm room mattress into the practice studio, and breaks things off with his crush because she is a distraction. His tirade at a family dinner is laced with Fletcher’s biting insults and profanity. For Andrew, this is all in pursuit of greatness.
Although Fletcher sees something in Andrew, he tests him again and again, physically and verbally abusing him, replacing him with another drummer and making him audition until 3 a.m. one night to earn a part in a competition.
After an incident gets both Andrew and Fletcher kicked out of school, Andrew briefly considers leading a normal 20-something’s life. But as he said at that family dinner: “I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was.” It turns out, he has more of Fletcher in him than he ever realized.
“Whiplash” is as fast-paced as the rudiments on a snare drum, and the dim cinematography and fantastic soundtrack lend a haunting quality. Simmons, an actor you’ve seen in just about everything but don’t quite know who he is, won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Fletcher. You won’t be forgetting him now.