Music instructor Terence Fletcher thinks the most harmful phrase in the English language is “good job.” Not only does he refuse to encourage his students, he actively discourages them. Fletcher hurls profane-laced rants at his pupils, spits out racial and homophobic slurs, repeatedly slaps his star drummer, Andrew, across the face and flings a chair at his head. Is Fletcher’s method justified? "Whiplash" attempts to answer this question.
The main setting for the film is an elite music school called the Shaffer Conservatory. Andrew, played by Miles Teller, is a first year student who desperately wants to succeed. His goal is to become a member of the school’s top jazz ensemble, directed by Fletcher. This happens early in the film but Andrew learns that he can never relax. Fletcher creates a competitive environment of fear and uncertainty in his classroom. There is no camaraderie among the students and the players can be ejected from the band at any time. Andrew practices so intensely that his hands start to bleed.
Writer/director Damien Chazelle considers music a competitive sport, rather than an artistic form of self-expression. Not once in this film does a student ask Fletcher a question concerning style or interpretation, and he never offers any guidance in return. He only berates and humiliates his pupils, constantly warning them not to embarrass him by receiving anything but first place in jazz competitions.
Fletcher is played by J.K. Simmons, who won an Academy Award in the best supporting actor category for this role. Simmons is such a good actor that he makes Fletcher seem plausible. There is a scene between teacher and student in which Fletcher attempts to justify his behavior to Andrew. He relates a story in which jazz great Charlie Parker had a cymbal thrown at his head after a bad performance. Supposedly, this caused Parker to practice as never before and so the artist was born. Fletcher wants to create the next Charlie Parker. Or is he merely intoxicated with the power he wields over his student’s lives? Also, his argument is merely a variation on the argument for torture. The end justifies any means.
The archetype for this film is really the Western male buddy film. Two strong protagonists meet, take the measure of each other in a fist fight, then bond and become allied against a common enemy. In "Whiplash," the initial bloody confrontation is replaced by the images of Andrew’s bleeding hands. The common enemy is the ordinary life led by such characters as Andrew’s ineffectual father. There is no joy in this film and music is simply a weapon used by the two main combatants.
Original Release Date 2014
I paid admission to see this film at a theatre.