SPOILER ALERT: I'll discuss many aspects of the plot of this film. If you've never seen Whiplash, I encourage you to watch it before reading this review.
I'll never forget the first time I saw Whiplash. I was on a plane headed for the Dominican Republic. This was after the Academy Awards that year, where Whiplash took home three Oscars. Despite that, I didn't really know much about the film other than the fact that people couldn't stop talking about J.K. Simmons' performance. I decided to put it on while we cruised at 30,000 ft. Looking back, that may just be the most enjoyable flight of my life.
Whiplash is such a beautiful mix of emotions and movements - much like a great piece of music. At times, this film is incredibly intense. In fact, it is mostly intense throughout. But then, it mixes in notes of great depth and tenderness. There's humor and love. It all comes together for a movie that's hard to forget once you've seen it.
The film begins in the only way I think this film really could begin - a drum solo played over a black screen. We then see a solitary young man at a drum set as the camera slowly creeps down a long hallway. The lighting of this scene is almost reminiscent of a horror movie with its darkness and interspersed shades of green. I'd like to think that's purposeful here. This movie is going to plum the dark depths of what we will do in pursuit of greatness.
That young man we see is Andrew Niemann (Miles Teller). He is a first-year student at Shaffer Conservatory of Music - the most prestigious music school in the country. We see him slaving away at his craft in some darkly-lit room in a back corner of the school. The camera closes in on him until he looks up from the drums to see a man clothed in darkness. He steps into the light, and we meet Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) for the first time.
Simmons' performance in this film is certainly deserving of all the praise that has been heaped upon it. If you know him from the State Farm commercials, you are in for a major surprise. He won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work, but this movie is not simply a vehicle for him. Teller gives a fine performance as well. But as much as anyone in this film - yes, even Simmons - I think director Damien Chazelle brings his A-game.
Chazelle has since grown in fame for his direction of La La Land - which won him his own Academy Award for Best Director in 2016. But I think Whiplash is his best work. That's splitting hairs somewhat. The fact that one director made both of these films is the bigger deal than figuring out which film is superior. However, I think Whiplash has the more fully-realized story. Here, you can feel the passion of an artist who has honed his craft but is, nonetheless, still honing. The drive, not just to succeed, but also to be great is the underpinning that holds Whiplash together.
Andrew wants to be the next Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich - the next great jazz musician. From the movie's opening scene through most of its runtime, that drive is contextualized by his relationship to Fletcher - the top instructor at Shaffer. A place in his studio band means you're the best of the best. But Andrew wants more than that, even. He wants Fletcher to think of him as a great musician. Andrew already believes there is greatness inside of himself. But he desperately needs that affirmation from someone who he feels actually has the skill and knowledge to judge true jazz greatness.
The problem? Fletcher is a monster.
Later in the film, Fletcher will have an opportunity to explain himself - why he is so harsh. But we get the visual evidence throughout the early parts of the film. Fletcher is intense and he has no qualms about verbally abusing his students. He will get the best performance out of them - even if it only comes from a place of fear. But then there are the Andrew Niemanns, the ones who take that abuse and use it to fuel their inner drive. That, both Fletcher and Andrew hope, is where transcendance may be found.
Andrew finally does make it into Fletcher's band. In one of the film's humorous turns, this victory gives Andrew so much confidence that he finally asks out the cute girl named Nicole (Melissa Benoist) at the movie theater he frequents with his dad (Paul Reiser). The scene of Andrew and Nicole's first date is one of the most tender and innocent in the entire film. It's quaint. It's nice.
But it isn't Charlie Parker.
Andrew and Nicole begin a relationship, but it is doomed to fail. As the viewer, you can't help but feel sorry for Nicole. Through no fault of her own, she gets left behind by the hurtling train that is Andrew's striving for greatness. Later in the film, Andrew coldly dumps Nicole because she will certainly distract him from his goal.
But the genius of this film's writing is that we are still able to root for Andrew after this scene. It's clearly a jerk move, but he has a goal and he is pursuing it at all costs. In other contexts, we applaud that level of drive. We find ourselves continuing to root for Andrew to realize his dream despite this blatantly selfish decision. The problem here is that Andrew's metric for success is the affirmation of others, specifically the affirmation of Fletcher. As we see in the dinner table scene where Andrew is talking with his family, there will always be people who do not recognize true greatness - even when it is sitting in the chair next to them. It's a nuanced thing - Andrew believes he is a great drummer (or that he can be one), but he hasn't taken ownership of that. He is cravenly striving after someone else who will tell him that he is Charlie Parker. In his mind, that can't come from Nicole or even his own father. It has to come from Fletcher.
Some have said that Simmons' portrayal of Fletcher is a one-note performance. Even if that were true (and I don't think it is), Simmons' ability to nail that one note would make it a great performance anyways. But it isn't all verbal attacks and bravado from Simmons as Fletcher. He gives us moments where the armor comes off, and that is what makes this an all-time performance. Fletcher is a musician who has taken control of his greatness. He has no care for what others think of him. In fact, he knows how he is viewed, yet he continues anyways. His moments of seeming to care are only tools to aid in his pursuit of revealing true greatness in his students. Fletcher's character brings to mind coaches from our sports arenas who had the occasional temper tantrum - Bobby Knight, Woody Hayes, and Bill Parcells. Fletcher believes that greatness must be pushed past its limits or it will be allowed to atrophy. That, in Fletcher's mind, is the greatest tragedy. One of his famous quotes from this film is a perfect example:
But is Fletcher right? Is that really how greatness is revealed - by being beaten and warped until only the great ones endure? After a gut-wrenching sequence when Andrew is running late to a competition (more on that in a second), he finally realizes that greatness is not worth the pain and torture he's putting himself through. He will never have Fletcher's approval. All he will find is more pushing and striving.
That scene where Andrew is running late is a perfect example of how great Chazelle's direction is in this film. Instead of simply having Andrew tell us he is running late through a phone conversation - we get visual cues. There's the GPS telling us how long the trip is. We then see the clock - 5:02. From an earlier scene, we know call-time was 5:00. The tension is now cranked to 11. We're in it completely. Then, horror of horrors, when he finally does arrive, he finds that his sticks are back at the car rental. I won't discuss the rest of the scene to save something for first-time viewing. But suffice it to say that Chazelle does a masterful job of cranking the tension until it is explosively released.
After the jarring events of the competition, Andrew is kicked out of Shaffer. Now what will he do? His dreams have been dashed. He confides in his father, and he begins to start over. New job. New apartment. Life goes on. The drums are put away. Until, by chance, he notices a sign outside a jazz club. A familiar name is performing.
By now, Fletcher has also been kicked out of Shaffer. His actions finally caught up to him. In fact, we are told in an earlier scene how this happened. Andrew's father has him talk with a lawyer about Fletcher's treatment of his students. It was Andrew's testimony that did Fletcher in.
Andrew enters the jazz club and sees Fletcher at the keys. After the set, Andrew goes to leave, but Fletcher tracks him down. They talk about what happened to Fletcher, though Andrew doesn't reveal his own part in the musician's downfall. This is where we get Fletcher's soliloquy on greatness. He also bemoans the fact that he never really had a Charlie Parker during his time at Shaffer. We can feel the stinging barbs that comment must have sent to Andrew's heart.
As they leave, Fletcher says that he just so happens to have a professional gig coming up for which he needs a drummer. They're doing all the old songs that Andrew knew from his time in Fletcher's studio band. Andrew already knows the songs, so it's a perfect fit. One last shot at greatness.
We get a touching scene where Andrew sheepishly invites Nicole to the performance. He cannot possibly think she will oblige after the way he treated her, right? Maybe, maybe not, but I think this scene's inclusion shows one final attempt by Andrew to achieve greatness in the eyes of another. Now Andrew has actually heard straight from Fletcher's mouth that he doesn't view him as a Charlie Parker. But Andrew knows these songs, and he knows he can nail them. One great set could right all his previous wrongs, and there's a chance Nicole could see him for his true greatness. Instead, we find out that Nicole has a new boyfriend. That bridge is beyond mending. So, Andrew turns his focus, instead, to the music.
He gets to the gig, and Fletcher outlines the stakes before they are to take the stage. This one performance could make or break a career. No pressure, huh? Andrew takes his place, then Fletcher gets right in his face. To our horror, he tells Andrew that he knows it was he who put the nail in the coffin of Fletcher's career at Shaffer. The frightening realization that this is going to be Fletcher's last revenge begins to creep over us. The first song is not one of the standards that Andrew had practiced. It is an entirely new song, and Andrew must ad-lib on the fly.
We would rightfully call it out as Hollywood idealism if Andrew was able to completely nail a professional-level piece without any practice. He doesn't, and he walks off the stage in shame. He sees his dad off-stage, and we think it is all over. But then, Andrew gets a new look in his eye. For the first time, he takes ownership of the greatness he has inside of him. Now, it isn't about Fletcher any more. Now, he just wants to prove to himself that he can do it.
He steps back out on the stage and doesn't give Fletcher the opportunity to choose a different song. He breaks into "Caravan" and tells the other players that he will cue them in. Not only is he drumming, he is orchestrating at the same time. Fletcher, somewhat suprisingly, follows. Though Fletcher is a complete control-freak, he has already shown that great music is his ultimate desire. Though he has now lost control, it isn't too crazy to believe that he would play along if he thinks a transcendant performance is about to occur.
And occur it does.
This final scene is virtuoso filmmaking from Chazelle. It is a dazzling mixture of whip pans (the use of which is outlined very well in this post from Film School Rejects) and frenzied cuts that build to a climactic zoom on the eyes of both Andrew and Fletcher. It is here, that Andrew finally gets the affirmation he desired for so long. But now, he's secure in the greatness of his talent even if no one else in the room will recognize it.
Whiplash is a great film. I don't think Chazelle needs that affirmation from me or anyone else, but I give it anyways. The greatness of this work is there for everyone to see and hear. It has an all-time performance from Simmons, and the music is so fantastic that I often listen to the songs when I'm driving or at my desk. But on top of all that, it is the story and direction from Chazelle that vault this into the ranks of truly great films for me. This movie seems to stand resolute in the age of social media and chasing likes and views. Instead, true greatness comes, not from seeking that affirmation from others above all else, but from simply putting forth our greatest effort and letting it stand on its own. It is that mindset that will bring us to actions worthy of those dangerous two words.
Note on content: This movie contains copious amounts of profanity - mainly coming from Simmons as Fletcher. Some of his verbal jabs are profane to the point of embarrassment. There are other vulgarities at points in the film, but nothing else quite like what Fletcher says. As I've said before, profanity is not particularly offensive to me in film. However, if it is for you, be aware that Fletcher uses profanity liberally. The violence in this film is mainly in the form of the tortuous lengths that Andrew goes in pursuit of his dream. In one scene, he drums so feverishly that his hand is left an oozing, bloodied mess. And the scene where he is late for a performance contains a violent occurrence that may be upsetting to some viewers. There is no sexual content to speak of.