Andrew Neiman is a jazz student who is determined to become a world-class drummer. To that end, he manages to get a place as an alternate in his instructor Terence Fletcher’s studio band. Fletcher is a harsh taskmaster who demands the best from his players, and who can turn downright abusive and violent when they don’t live up to his expectations. Will Neiman be broken by Fletcher’s harsh methods, or will they just strengthen his resolve?
The world of music can be an intense one, but in Whiplash, we see that idea pushed to its limits. This isn’t a film about a hero and the villain he must triumph over – it’s about a protagonist who is himself a bit of an arsehole, being pushed beyond his limits by a man he both hates and admires in equal measure.
If there’s one thing that Andrew definitely isn’t, it’s a likeable protagonist. We can admire his drive and dedication, but he’s not someone you’d ever want to be friends with. His brutal dedication sees him pushed to the limit to outperform his rivals and live up to Fletcher’s near-impossible standards. He even breaks up with his girlfriend because a relationship would take up precious practice time – and hearteningly, she has enough self-esteem to get on with her life and find someone else instead of waiting around for him.
The true driving force behind the film, however, is Fletcher himself, outstandingly portrayed by JK Simmons of Oz and Law and Order fame. We’ve probably all encountered a boss or a teacher who thought that being hard on people was the right way to draw out their potential, and Fletcher represents that idea pushed to the extreme. He is emotionally and physically abusive, and, as we find out later, even drove one of his former players to suicide. He’s a character the audience loves to hate – not a person you would ever want to encounter in real life, but someone who is fascinating to watch on screen.
Is pushing people in that way ever the right thing to do? Does Whiplash endorse and glorify this kind of teaching method? Whilst no one should ever go as far as Fletcher, there are times when pushing someone can bring out the best in them, and there are people who do appreciate that teaching style. However, it can also be very damaging and demoralising – if there’s any chance the recipient isn’t going to react well to the hard approach, then something gentler is definitely in order. As for whether the film itself endorses being hard on people, personally, I don’t think so. Yes, it does push Andrew to surpass his limitations, but none of it ever looks easy or fun.
Whiplash may take the pursuit of jazz excellence to dangerous and barely credible extremes, but it is compelling viewing nonetheless. If you want to see JK Simmons take centre stage as the intense and fascinating villain of the piece, you’ve come to the right place.