This is an extraordinary movie for music lovers, but even those without the requisite “chops” can still enjoy the sparkling dynamics.
Andrew (Miles Teller) is a drummer. In fact, that’s pretty much all he is. He’s enrolled at a prestigious music school in New York City; it is the best in the country and he has talent. He practices constantly. He doesn’t have much of a family; his mother absented herself from his life, his dad raised him and cares about him, but he has no siblings. Not much in the way of friends, either, because he’s really single-minded right now. Driven to be the best he can possibly be. And he already thinks he’s pretty good – an attitude which a certain teacher will do his best to drive right out of him.
Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is the jazz band conductor, but he looks and acts more like a Marine drill sergeant. He expects his students to stand up and come to attention when he enters the room. He yells at them for making mistakes in long, loud, profane tirades. He’s completely merciless if he detects that they lack the requisite talent to be in his band. And he’s particularly hard on Andrew, because he thinks Andrew does have talent and Fletcher wants to motivate him by intimidation. So Fletcher messes with Andrew all kinds of ways. He stops the whole band during practice so that he can admonish Andrew about his rhythm: “Are you a little faster than indicated, or a little slower?” Fletcher actually strikes Andrew – yes, slaps him on the face – when he says “I don’t know.” Several times. Because Fletcher is convinced that Andrew does know. And Fletcher won’t allow that kind of passive-aggressive dissembling, either.
Andrew is literally practicing until his fingers bleed. Fletcher pushes him to be even faster on the cut time, which is just pure physical skill. Fletcher wants them all doing pure jazz classics, the kind that Buddy Rich used to do, not “that lazy stuff that passes for jazz these days.” And pop or rock music is just plain anathema and beneath contempt.
Andrew tries, once, to “get a life.” He enjoys going to the movies with his dad, and he couldn’t help but notice the cute girl behind the popcorn counter. Nicole (Melissa Benoist) does indeed go out with him and they seem to really hit it off. But right about that time, Fletcher is challenging Andrew to be the lead drummer for the competition band. Andrew decides that it’s so important for him to focus on that single goal that he doesn’t have time for a girlfriend. So he simply tells her that – in the same tone of voice he would use when ordering pizza. As Nicole realizes that he’s telling her that he thinks she’ll stand in the way of his progress, she naturally figures that he isn’t ready for any kind of relationship and understandably stalks off in a huff. So much for Andrew’s life having any kind of emotional balance.
As it is, he’s wound up so tight that when something does go wrong that prevents him from performing well at an important competition, under the predictable scorn and invective of his mentor, Andrew blows up, cusses him out and storms off. That’s it. He’s done. He’ll even contemplate revenge by allowing his dad to pursue disciplinary action against Fletcher for verbal abuse. Now that all the bridges are burned behind him, Andrew throws away his drumsticks and goes to work at a coffee shop as a barista.
But we all know that he’s way too obsessed to walk away for good from the only thing he really has any passion about. And in that climactic last scene, we see the passion, all right, and some technical expertise that even non-aficionados can appreciate.
Yes, “Whiplash” is an intense moviegoing experience, but it’s a well told, sharply-focused tale about the potential train wreck of deciding to be the best you can be… and the resultant whiplash that can cause.
RONALD P. SALFEN is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.