My theory is that Terrence Fletcher, the band class dictator in Whiplash, is an imaginary character, a metaphor for the artist’s inner voice, the wicked voice, the one that whispers, “You’re a fraud.” The sadistic music teacher, played with an unreal yet riveting intensity by J.K. Simmons, is a ghost haunting the ambitious dreams of young Miles Teller, an aspiring jazz drummer. Fletcher is the personification of the torment of a gifted young musician (or artist of any kind), tormented because his gift is a curse, mocking him for falling short of genius. It’s like that sometimes for the gifted. The merely talented are happy to rise about the crowd, and they happily share their talent. The gifted may be trapped in a darker place. They are so close to being able to change the world, but it is just out of reach.
Ostensibly, Whiplash is a gripping drama about the rise to greatness of young Miles under the savage boot camp style music class overseen by Mr. Simmons. His teaching methods, as he loves to remind his captives, were inspired by an anecdote about the great Bird, who was the target of a flying cymbal hurled at him by a dissatisfied band leader. In self-defence, Bird became great and thus avoided dangerous projectiles.
Miles, in a weird kind of Stockholm syndrome, internalises his tormentor’s philosophy and sacrifices the love of a young lady he was lucky to have because love would not further the agenda. Love is a distraction. Nothing must be allowed to stand in his way. In one scene, Miles crawls, battered and bloodied, from the wreckage of his car following a collision with a truck and runs from the scene in order to get to rehearsal on time. His bloody head and hands are met with indifference by students and teacher alike. It’s a pitiful and preposterous spectacle as he tries to keep up with the band. Compassion, like love, is not on the agenda and when his technique suffers because of the injuries he is summarily cut from the band.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m loving every minute of this movie. Much of it is beyond belief but perhaps there is a spiritual truth here.What is it like to be gifted and still crave more? This movie tries to portray that and poetic license may be necessary. Just for the record, Steve Vai was put through hell by Frank Zappa during his audition for a place with the Mothers of Invention. So proving one’s worth in the world of music isn’t always pretty. However, history doesn’t record that Frank slapped Mr. Vai or that the guitarist left the audition in tears.
The performances in Whiplash are worthy of the highest praise. It certainly may be the finest movie I can remember ever having seen about a sadly neglected subject – the guy behind the band, the drummer. It’s also a great movie about jazz, about lofty aspirations, about heart and soul.
It should also be noted that, unlike movies about guitar players where inevitably the movement of the hands are comically unrelated to the music emanating from the instrument, Andrew Neiman actually knows how to play the drums. Some of the more virtuoso work is provided by an off screen master, but Neiman always looks like he’s really playing.
The climax is a gut-wrenching and ultimately stirring and inspiring combination of tragedy, perceived betrayal, real betrayal, humiliation and redemption.
Not to mention a drum solo that will rock your world.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Writer: Damien Chazelle (screenplay)
Stars: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist
Runtime: 107 min