There couldn’t be a more fitting name for Whiplash. It haunts your nerves, shakes your bones, and drives you right to your core. The struggle to be the “best of the best” is widely felt through this tale of drumming in the country’s top music school with real sweat, blood and tears.
The first scene we are given is to Andrew Neyman completely immersed in playing his drum kit. Swiftly rolling, stroking and jamming, this opening scene sets the tone for how the rest of the movie is going to play out–a consistent and ongoing drumbeat. Miles Teller’s (The Spectacular Now) portrayal of Neyman, an ambitious and insanely-driven drumming student who earns his spot under the instruction of monster jazz-instructor Terence Fletcher, played by the equally-intimidating J.K. Simmons, is awe-striking. He’s an impressionable 19-year-old hopeful of becoming even closely comparable to greats such as Buddy Rich; he looks up to Charlie Parker’s greatness achieved through enduring traumatizing rehearsal practices. His family doesn’t seem to understand the intensity and drive of his art, and he even gives up a budding relationship with his sweet girlfriend played by Melissa Benoist (Glee) because he knows she would “stop [him] from being great.”
Fletcher’s commanding presence on screen is spellbinding. With a single slip-up, he can stop an entire band with a mere shudder of the wrist. A clean-shaven militant dressed all in black, his words can make his students cry. As students dutifully march into his classroom, avert any eye-contact and play their instruments at the sole command of Fletcher, he insists on pushing his students towards greatness and finds the words “good job” as the death of it.
Young Neyman earns his way to Fletcher’s studio band as the drummer’s page-turner and is promoted when he demands he knows Fletcher’s song by heart–a sentence holding so much gravity that leaves Fletcher unfazed.
Through its engrossingly nerve-wrecking rehearsal scenes, this film widely captures the intensity of striving to become the best at one’s craft. Fletcher, constantly demanding the near-impossible, replaces and kicks students out if they are not up-to-par. In one scene, he rotates his three drummers until their shirts are soaked in sweat and blood, just to get the perfect tempo, even if it takes all night. Weepy-eyed Neyman follows Fletcher’s every word because he believes his fight is a fight worth fighting for. Throughout the journey of Fletcher’s studio band, Neyman holds his spot possessively, enduring through blood spillage, uselessly patched-up hands and a meaningless accident that gets us asking if this all-or-nothing approach is even worth it.
Director Damien Chazelle (who is only 29) beautifully captures the intensity and perfection demanded in Fletcher’s room, as varying close-ups and jump cuts of the instruments with hands tuning up, fingers nervously adjusting themselves, spit being blown through a horn’s valve and beading off of Neyman’s shriveled-up face make us feel exactly what the band is feeling. This all leads up the film’s ending finale, in which Fletcher’s glimpse of innocence is returned to his utterly no-nonsense profanity as Neyman furiously drums on in agonizing pain.
This film leaves me feeling entirely anxious that even I myself question putting myself through this movie again. But, that’s what makes this movie so great. As this may well be Teller’s most dynamic and career-establishing role to date, his utter persistence and dopey-eyed drive made me grow a newfound respect for him. Simmons even sizzles with ridiculously hilarious profanity in this, that you somehow hate that you love him in this.
For any young artist or hopeful who strives to become the best at your craft, this movie proves haunting as it poses, “How far is too far?”
And you can audibly hear, see and feel the intensity that shakes your bones.