This movie surprised me – in a good way. I did not have low expectations, but the movie far surpassed what I thought it would be. The plot sounds so simple: A 19 year-old, first-year student at a prestigious New York music school and the relationship he has with his oft-abusive jazz teacher. It sounds fine, but relies a lot on the actors. The acting in Whiplash truly shines, but even the writing lends itself to intelligent storytelling and, ultimately, a movie which was thoroughly impressive to me.
The young(ish) star of the film, Miles Teller, who plays Andrew stepped up his game for this role. His other roles have been in more young adult movies such as The Spectacular Now and the Divergent series as well as a turn in That Awkward Moment, a bro-comedy. I liked all of those movies, but this material is far more adult and he grew into it surprisingly well. The movie revolves around the relationship between Andrew and his teacher Fletcher, but also around how Andrew changes and grows as a character. He goes through such a range of evolution throughout the film: starting at the school innocent, hopeful and driven; growing to almost emulate his teacher, becoming cruel himself; and finally, standing up for himself. There are several scenes which to me were almost disturbing as he seemed to begin turning into Fletcher, yelling cruel obscenities at his competition, harshly breaking up with his girlfriend, and even at the end he stands up to Fletcher by embarrassing him on stage. In this scene, Fletcher even seems to fade into darkness from the shot as he steps out of the light on the stage, disappearing as Andrew continues his drum solo. He has truly come a long way from the boy he was at the beginning of the film.
Another aspect that has to be addressed, is how well Teller was able to fake-drum. In fact, he is a self-taught drummer since his teens, but still had to learn the technique for jazz drumming, as he had always played rock and roll drums. It may not seem difficult, but when the entire movie revolves around a character who is a master jazz drummer, there must be some level of skill for it to look believable. As stated in a New York Post article:
“Compared with other instruments, it’s much more difficult to fake playing the drums. Unlike piano, for example, where an actor’s hands can be hidden from the camera, drumming can’t be cheated. If an actor is out of time, the audience will know. When the actor strikes the cymbal, the audience will know.”
If the audience feels conflicted about Andrew’s character development, JK Simmons as jazz teacher Fletcher brings it to a whole new level. There is no arguing that Fletcher is abusive and cruel as a teacher, but what makes it interesting is how he believes his methods are worthwhile. He believes that a truly great musician will be driven enough to take the harsh criticism Fletcher doles out and come back the next day better than ever. He tells the story of a student who was brutally shot down for his abilities, and who then came back a year later and played the best solo ever on stage. We also see, mid-way through the movie, how upset he is upon hearing about an old favorite student’s death. He seems to genuinely care about his students, even if he is hard on them. Of course, we also later learn how and why that student died, further complicating how admirable and/or abusive Fletcher is.
I also have to note the cinematography for this film. Some of the shots impressed me simply because they showed there was thought involved, while others truly added to the feel of the movie. One in particular that I liked is when Fletcher pulls out a piece of sheet music and the focus follows his finger as it trails down the paper. It is not a shot that adds to the movie, per se, but it shows artistry. At the other end, the way Andrew’s final solo was shot worked with the music to paint a truly compelling picture of the ending. Close-ups of the drums as they were played, as well as the way in which lighting was used to show a contrast between Andrew and Fletcher. All of this made the ending more complex and thought-provoking.
Overall, the message of the movie can be taken in two directions. It could be seen as positive, showing that Andrew perseveres despite Fletcher’s abuse and is able to become a great musician and stand up to his abuser. At the same time, it can be taken in a negative way because it seems to prove the effectiveness of Fletcher’s teaching method. This, however, is part of what I think makes this a great movie: even at the end, the meaning behind the film is left slightly open and people can walk away from it taking different ideas away. It is a film that will make you think – about the characters, about the message and about the morality of what is depicted. While it is not necessarily for the faint of heart, it is definitely a film to see.
If you want to hear more about the film from Teller, Simmons and its director, Damien Chazelle, check out the video included below.