The image is haunting, something out of a horror movie. A snare drum is splattered with blood, crimson smears on a round white surface. Gasping and sniffling give this grim picture a soundtrack. It comes from three jazz students who look more like victims of assault– delirious from pain– than prestigious drummers. For the past few hours they have seen their music studio become a torture chamber, rotating as prisoners of their professor, whose unrelenting demands and expectations seem more unreachable with every screaming failure. In this unflattering aftermath, a drum kit has turned into a crime scene.
What is their crime? It’s doesn’t seem as serious as the red stains would indicate. The three have been unable to maintain an extremely fast swing tempo on the ride cymbal. Sometimes their attempts are too fast, others too slow. After each mishit they rotate, adjusting the stool then quickly hopping off it. Jazz practice turns into a humiliating exhibition. Their skin is ripped with callouses while sweat soaks their shirts and sticks. In Whiplash, and more specifically in the mind of their professor, this sordid affair isn’t cruel and unusual punishment. This is justice.
Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, one of those embarrassed but highly driven drummers at Schafer Academy, a fictitious Manhattan music conservatory. J.K. Simmons plays Terrance Fletcher, that sadistic instructor, incessantly drawing both fear and approval. Together they supply enough energy for three movies. They put Damien Chazelle’s bold, hyper-kinetic sophomore feature inside a pressure cooker and short-circuit the wiring. It’s an apt metaphor. Everything, including the movie’s opening drumroll that bangs exponentially faster, crescendos into oblivion.
It takes time to get there. Fletcher (the kids would never call him by his first name) teaches the top jazz group in the school, the pinnacle for aspiring musicians though it requires the thickest skin. The music is modern, upbeat swing and bebop. Fletcher wears a tight, muscular T-shirt, and becomes a dictator in the classroom, cursing to the point of comedy. When he enters each day, Chazelle pans across the rows and you see the panic in the trombonists’ eyes and trumpeters checking their fingerings in fearful anticipation. Andrew is new to the group but has impressed Fletcher, getting a shot on the titular song. Fletcher counts him in silently but shortly waves his hands. “Not quite my tempo,” he tells Andrew. “Again.” It’s impossible to hear the problem. You end up believing Fletcher, an expert and meticulous jazz musician, and appreciate his attention to detail. The need for precision soon balloons out of proportion. “Not my tempo!”
People might be inclined to call this “Full Metal Jacket goes to Julliard,” but that reduces what Chazelle has created. Whiplash probes at the insanity of achieving greatness, of being transcendent. Andrew is obsessed with perfection, self-motivating and self-inflicting. He tries dating a girl but almost immediately breaks things off with her, assuming his dedication to drumming will only spell doom for a relationship that has barely begun. His trips to the movies with his dad (Paul Reiser), a former artist, are sacrificed for more practice time. To Andrew, they don’t understand the dedication it takes to escape mediocrity.
Fletcher, who is motivated to find the next great one, only reinforces this belief. He keeps retelling the story of Joe Jones throwing a cymbal at Charlie Parker to awaken his potential. He almost replicates it with Andrew. It’s a tragedy when someone tells you “good work,” he says. He rationalizes his physical abuse that way, so when he slaps his students, he’s not crossing boundaries, he’s stretching them. His volatile methods have a tendency to rattle the wrong cages.
The band travels to competitions, which enhance the ones already happening between the students. Each song becomes an opportunity for a drummer to prove his worth. Pretty soon it becomes a contest to see who can hold onto his integrity, and his sticks, the longest. At one point, after a violent eruption during the show, and a near fatal one before it, Andrew walks out the stage door into a dark alley. He’s sweaty and bloody hidden beneath a hooded sweatshirt. His fists, which he dips into bowls of ice, are swollen and raw. His fingers have amassed and rejected numerous bandages. In the dim light, he’s embodied the physicality and ethos of a boxer: beaten, broken, pondering the limits of his ability.
The imagery and existential weight that accompany the scene slips Whiplash into the sports movie genre, both in its narrative arc and mentor relationships. You need authenticity to deter a predictable beat, though, and Chazelle has it. He played drums in high school and his script is loosely based off his strict high school instructor. His experience with percussion translates seamlessly into his filmmaking. The camera whips and swerves around the sound. It bounces with the bass. It zooms up to Teller’s face and watches the cymbal sizzle as it absorbs the sweat dripping off his forehead. He’s forcing you to learn the geography of the drum kit. The pain throbbing and blood spurting from Teller’s hand is Chazelle’s equivalent to a punch to the cheek in the ring.
But Chazelle is going further than physicality. Andrew and Fletcher are just as intriguing as what they represent. What is the cost of achieving greatness? How far should a teacher push his student? When does negative reinforcement become evil reinforcement? Simmons offers some humanity to his monster but it’s that monster that also provokes some elite talent. He is a repressed, homophobic slurring nightmare with Machiavellian methods. In the third act, he switches to mind games. You never know what Simmons has ready next.
Teller seems to revel in these volatile conditions. One minute he’s smirking and the next he’s sobbing, negotiating between the extreme challenges of playing difficult charts and the joys in overcoming them. At dinner with extended family one night, Andrew’s cousins are praised for being athletes and model students. They don’t understand the difficulty in mastering crooked time signatures. His drumming is just banging to them. But joining the ranks of Buddy Rich means devoting the same, if not more, time and energy than watching game film or reading textbooks. Teller keeps you guessing whether he’ll leap to safety or continue walking the unpredictable high-wire.
There might be more to discuss surrounding the struggle of two white men in the landscape of contemporary jazz. The movie’s insularity doesn’t quite push its music genre’s racial history. Chazelle chooses Andrew as his subject but it could equally have been a pianist, a saxophonist, or a guitarist. But Whiplash doesn’t feel like it has any ulterior motives like that. By the end, when the camera is swishing back and forth on a drum solo, all it’s doing is leaving you breathless. You’re watching a filmmaker and two actors give everything they have. When Teller lets out “blood, sweat, and tears” in this movie, he’s not leaning on a cliché. He’s redefining it.