The beat goes on. And on, although maybe not at exactly the right tempo, at an upscale New York music academy where teacher Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) rules with an intensity that makes the drill sergeant from “Full Metal Jacket” look positively warm and cuddly by comparison.
“Whiplash” sees Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) work toward his dream of becoming the best jazz drummer of all time. Taken under Fletcher’s wing, he is given a spot as an alternate in the school’s prestigious studio band. His job is to observe and turn pages of sheet music for the ensemble’s regular drummer but from the first day Fletcher seems to be by turns goading and encouraging Andrew, building him up only to tear him down. “Were you rushing or were you dragging? If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will gut you like a pig.” In an effort to impress his hardnosed teacher Andrew practices until his hands bleed, covering his cymbals in a fine mist of blood. But it may not be enough, and though Andrew has given his life to his studies, even dumping his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) so she won’t be a distraction, he still might not have what it takes to be one of the greats in Fletcher’s eyes.
“Whiplash” is part musical—the big band jazz numbers are exhilarating—and part psychological study of the tense dynamics between mentor and protégée in the pursuit of excellence. The pair is a match made in hell. Fletcher is a vain, driven man given to throwing chairs at his students if they dare hit a wring note. He’s an exacting hardliner who teaches by humiliation and fear. “There are,” he says, “no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.”
Andrew is a loner who belittles anyone whose ambitions aren’t as lofty as his—and that’s pretty much everyone. He cares more about Buddy Rich than the real people in his life.
The toxic mix of perfectionism, ambition and hubris meet in a perfect storm, and, “Black Swan” style has serious repercussions for both teacher and student.
Director Damien Chazelle doesn’t miss a beat in presenting the complicated relationship. He draws inspiration from a famous story of Jo jones and Charlie Parker. Jones famously threw a cymbal at Parker after a lackluster solo, prompting the sax plkayer to go away, practice for a year and return as one of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century. Teaching through fear and intimidation is the message, and while we’ll never know if Andrew ever reaches Charlie Parker levels, Fletcher certainly emulates Jo’s methods.