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There is something inherently magnetic about the movie mentor, a figure who drives the hero of the story to become something they never knew was inside them. Think of Mr. Miyagi of The Karate Kid franchise, Sean Maguire of Good Will Hunting, or just about any coach in a sports movie. These are people who recognize untapped potential and push to see it set free.
With Whiplash, the teacher is really more monster than mentor, a beast of an instructor who holds reign over his students with the ferocity of a kaiju stomping over Tokyo but gets results nonetheless. The mentor is a jazz instructor named Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), a famous instructor at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in New York, and leader of the school’s studio jazz band, a group of only the best musicians in the student body.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a first year student who one evening, while practicing on his own, encounters Fletcher, who invites him into the band to be an alternate for the core drummer, but of course, Andrew steps up and it’s not long before he gets the core position. This would seem like a win for the young drummer, but it becomes a lesson in humility and pain as Fletcher demands of the young man more than would seem humanly possible.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, of La La Land fame, Whiplash is a startling satisfying film that, even while it disguises itself like a drama, plays out much more like a thriller with a hero and villain playing a game of cat and mouse. It all culminates to what is arguably some of the greatest ten minutes of filmmaking in the last 25 years of which won’t be spoiled here. It’s breathlessly good. And while it is the best part of the movie, simply because it is so satisfying, there are other terrific moments, including the time when …
Coming into the studio group, Andrew is met with musicians playing at levels he’s never performed at before, and it’s intimidating. More so is his first exposure to Fletcher, who outside the studio seems warm and encouraging, but inside, is a power keg of fury and perfectionism.
As an alternate, Andrew gets some verbal (and a little physical) abuse until the band plays at a local competition and by a manipulated circumstance, gets a chance to be the core drummer for the show. The next day at practice, Fletcher even plugs him into the core position for good it seems, much to the dismay of the outgoing drummer.
This is when Fletcher announces the new chart the band will be rehearsing next, a tune called ‘Caravan,’ which has a particularly fast tempo. Andrew is pleased, but is surprised when Fletcher explains that he’s bringing in a different new drummer with some talent to play it, a guy named Connelly (Austin Stowell), who was in the previous lower-level class Andrew was pulled from.
Suddenly, Andrew realizes he has to defend his position, and to make it doubly hard, Fletcher has the original core drummer also audition. This prompts Andrew to make some sacrifices in order to practice harder, breaking up with his new girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist), in a heartbreaker moment that will come back to haunt him. But his path is not to be shared right now.
On the day of first practice for the song, the three drummers end up in a kind of drum beat combat, taking turns on the kit to try and show their prowess while Fletcher cruelly rotates them, showering them with insults and spats of fury, raging that they must play better and faster.
It takes hours, bloodied and sweating, and at 2 a.m., Fletcher finally calls for them to stop. With ice in his voice, he gives Andrew the job, the others looking on almost relieved it is over. Fletcher then starts regular practice as the band returns to their seats. It’s madness.
The moment is an electrifying sequence, a chaotic montage of the three boys attempting to please a master with no level of satisfaction. The point of the battle is about ownership, something that Fletcher knows Andrew doesn’t have, even if his taking of the core seat at the previous concert made him think so. He needs Andrew to know that the little stool behind the kit is a fragile pedestal, one that is easily toppled, and a king sitting there is at the whim of a higher power.
To be a player in the studio band means earning and keeping their place, even if you are invited. To this point, we’ve already seen Fletcher dismiss a trombone player, who might have been talented but lacked the courage, and was sent away with some rather embarrassing results. This is what Fletcher is all about, less with the conducting and more about character, shaping these musicians into the greatest in the world. Or suffer the consequences.
What we see is the first true conflict between the teacher and the student, one contrived by Fletcher to teach Andrew that his talents are remarkable but not legendary (yet), that to be both what he sees in the boy and what the boy sees himself, he has to go well beyond what it means to want or to feel pain. He must understand and respect what it means to be that good, that to play as well as he does means far more than just the music, it’s a responsibility and therefore, he must earn his place at this level and beat back those who think they deserve it more. This is what being a great one is.
Whiplash is an astonishing experience, fan of music or not, and while it might play into a well-worn formula, it does so with remarkable effectiveness, crafting a powerful story of two highly passionate men who are superficially like water and fire but in truth almost symbiotic. A challenging character study and a sensational jazz music enterprise, a it is when a boy takes his place among men that makes for a great cinematic moment.