When he was a teenager, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker got a chance to play with Jo Jones, drummer for Count Basie’s Orchestra. Midway through the performance, Parker lost the beat, Jones threw a cymbal at him, and the crowd laughed him off the stage. Legend has it that Parker muttered “I’ll be back” as he exited the stage and used the ridicule of the crowd as fuel to practice and work his way to becoming one of the greatest saxophonists of all time.
This is the story Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), an instructor at a prestigious New York City conservatory, tells Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) in an early scene in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. It’s Neyman’s first day practicing with Fletcher’s elite band section, and Fletcher tells the story playfully, to set Neyman at ease and inspire him. By the end of rehearsal, after Fletcher has berated, ridiculed, slapped, and thrown a chair at his newest student—the story has become less of a pep talk and more of a lesson plan.
Ultimately, for all Fletcher’s insistence to the contrary, Parker’s origin story is not central to his pedagogical method because it produces mastery of music, but because it justifies abuse. Cruelty is the ends, rather than the means for Fletcher. This is also true for Whiplash at large, a film that turns out to be far less concerned with the achievement of virtuosity than what a young man might do to get to such a level.
Neyman, like many a protagonist in pursuit of greatness, is asked to sacrifice for his own success. First to go is his dignity, as he absorbs Fletcher’s incessant barrage of insults, straying far from his drumming ability to his Jewish heritage, mother’s abandonment, and, most painfully, his father’s (Paul Reiser) utterly average existence. And Fletcher’s tormenting is not merely psychological—over the course of the film, Neyman has shed several liters of blood, sweat, and tears in the name of achieving sufficient mastery of the music.
Miles Teller, as Andrew Neyman, is an excellent fit. Already in his short career he’s carved out a niche playing young men whose charismatic self-assuredness spills over into self-destruction. In The Spectacular Now, Teller was a charming alcoholic whose refusal to apply himself led to numerous bungled relationships. Here, he plays a variation on that theme: someone who’s unyielding quest for excellence causes him to abandon those who stand in his way. Visually, the film plays along. Shot by Sharone Meir, the exteriors, primarily lit in sickly greens, and reminiscent of Edward Hopper’s city paintings, depict a metropolis full of isolation. Even shots of the entire band tend to zoom in on Neyman, very rarely is the ensemble shown to share the frame. This is in part because Neyman either ignores or disdains all of his fellow musicians. The movie’s few interactions with those outside of the band act as critiques of Neyman’s closed-mindedness with varying results. For instance, his unapologetically brusque jilting of a nervous out-of-towner (Melissa Benoist)and his inability to win her back indicate the costs of his self-centeredness, self-aware as it may be. Other scenes are less interesting and feel more perfunctory, like an obligatory dinner scene with small-town cousins who just don’t get it.
There’s some irony to be found in how Chazelle ends up falling into the same pattern as Neyman, by pursuing his goal too overtly and doggedly. Though the first shot of Neyman’s blood on his drum set is a shock, each time we revisit the image, it lands a little more softly., Similarly, we already know that Neyman is obsessed with impressing his teacher, to the exclusion of all other physical and psychological concerns. By the time he is hit by a truck, we know he will – straining our suspension of disbelief beyond its limits – get up, and still run to make it to a concert. The scene is mined for humor, but its point is superfluous and distracting.
What the film could benefit from is some of the diversity of tone Chazelle’s script and Simmons’s performance employ to make Fletcher a tremendously compelling antagonist. His shaved head, barking delivery, and rigid posture give him the feel of a drill sergeant. It strikes the audience as natural that when he enters the room, and the musicians stand ready at attention. Simmons keeps the punishing rehearsal sequences gripping. He and the script prevents them from becoming repetitive cycles of torment by varying his tone – confidentially confiding in Neyman in one, publically humiliating him in the next. When the script has Simmons cry over a dead student, it leaves it unclear whether they are crocodile tears he sheds. He keeps us on our toes; we, as much as his students, try and fail to anticipate his next move. Simmons’s menacing magnetism helps us understand why his students don’t just leave behind the masochism a relationship with Fletcher entails. He keeps us engaged, even when the film hits too hard.