At the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York, 19 year-old Andrew (Miles Teller), an aspiring drummer in his first year, gets a chance audition with Dr. Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the austere conductor of the highly esteemed jazz orchestra. The opportunity to shine is something of a blunder, though it leads to the talented student’s eventual selection as an alternate for the band. But no one is really good enough for Fletcher, who rules his class with an iron fist and, like a drill sergeant, barks orders and spews colorful insults with an incredibly short temper. He interacts with his students in a passive-aggressive manner, one moment offering encouraging words, the next throwing objects at their heads. “Let’s have fun!” he exclaims before switching a bipolarity switch to spontaneously arrange radical humiliation and unleash extreme scurrility.
Fletcher isn’t a friend or a role model, but a motivator. His quest for absolute perfection routinely borders on cruelty, especially as he seems to relish making his pupils quiver and cry in their chairs – marking his brand of incentivizing highly controversial. At the Overbrook Jazz Competition, a second of negligence ushers in a lucky break that allows Andrew to step into the core position, where he’s subjected to even more excruciating forms of stimulus as he aims to be the next big thing (or the next Charlie Parker).
Early on, the camera observes small details of musicians warming up, briefly touching upon the significance of sounds, the rhythm and pace that seems to exist in every activity, and the distinguishing separations of noise and music. But this artistic aside is lost to the relentless self-destruction of the lead character who, while determined to become a household name (like percussionists Buddy Rich and Jo Jones, though neither are perhaps as famous as Gene Krupa, who isn’t mentioned – and it’s likely all three drummers are far from common knowledge subjects), forfeits physical wellbeing, mental stability, and family and friends. His practicing is an unhealthy obsession; his goals are relatively impossible, his dedication resembles Stockholm syndrome, and his ideas of success reveal the most deplorable aspects of competition and rivalry.
Andrew isn’t much of a hero or antihero, while his nemesis is a thoroughly unlikeable, abusive monster, ultimately giving the audience no one to root for – though the actors are unquestionably divine in their challenging roles. In “Whiplash’s” examinations of passion, value, sacrifice, and meaningful accomplishment, a world of utter unhappiness emerges from an exaggerated arena of professional performers. The tolls on the mind and body are incredible and the payoff appears almost nonexistent. Is this an accurate portrayal, or just embellished representations for the sake of drama? Would anyone truly relinquish all traces of humanity for a shot at joining an orchestra, no matter how renowned?
Is the film about unyieldingly pursuing dreams, callously dashing hopes, or recognizing failure? It isn’t until the final 15 minutes that “Whiplash” unveils a striking shift in purpose and a very welcome twist. What was previously a character study and an analyzation of corrupted methodologies becomes a masterful blend of furious soloing, outrageous energy, a nerve-wracking power struggle, a climactic showdown, and the revelation of reasoning behind torturous tribulations. It all ends on a triumphantly upbeat note that has the intensity to completely dominate every annoyance and dubious direction that came before it. And the continuous jazz music playing in the background, through headphones, on compact discs, inextricably surfacing in musings, and emanating from recitals is utterly absorbing.
– The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)