Aristotle noted that “Excellence is never an accident”, a mantra that Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), the ambitious protagonist of Whiplash, and his brutal tutelage, Fletcher (J.K Simmons) adopt unequivocally. Excellence, he continues, “is always the result of high intention, sincere effort and intelligent execution” which, when assumed, leads Neiman to Shaffer Conservatory to be subject to emotional, verbal and physical abuse on his path to perfection.
Although Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, initially appears to place music at its very core; it is a film that could have easily been about anything as structurally it appears closer to films regarding sport, like Aronofsky’s Black Swan, than typical films about music and demonstrates this by showing Neiman’s passion in long, gruelling montages as he practices till his own skin is torn and his drums are painted with the red of blood.
Neiman is wholly competitive and the audience is made understand that normal activities, such as dating, are far beyond the anxious and isolated mind of a character who wishes to be remembered amongst the giants of the art form. This isolation, coupled with his own passion for perfection, spirals Neiman towards obsession while granting Fletcher an opportunity to become even more fearful as the tyrant of symphony.
Simmon’s role as Fletcher is definitely the most compelling element of Whiplash. He brandishes his own form of psychological punishment that, in his opinion, the hypercompetitive jazz environment requires. The eager student is at first put to ease by the kindly admonishment the sentence “not quite my tempo” is delivered with only to be punished by it seconds later as it seeks to humiliate and torment. Simmons, in a powerful display, shouts “I will gut you like a pig” while also sprinkling doubt in the audience, who can often be seen commending his efforts, by telling us he was to “…push people beyond what’s expected of them”. “I believe that’s an absolute necessity”, he suggests. His role transforms Whiplash from a hollow tale of ambition into a hand-to-the-throat thriller.
The plot, though often lacking and familiar, is inviting and inventive and makes for an enjoyable, if uncomfortable, watch.