I've no idea if there has ever been a full length feature about a young jazz drummer, but I doubt that it was better than this. Whiplash is as sharp and stinging as its title, and will evoke a strong response from anyone who sees it. The film deals with ambition, obsession and bullying, and it leaves you feeling beaten round the head – in a good way.
Andrew (Miles Teller) is a 19 year old drummer at the best jazz conservatory of music in New York (aka the world). He practises assiduosly with his colleagues, but he just wants to get better and rise higher in the ranks. When top teacher/conductor Terence Fletcher (J K Simmons) summons him to join the core band (i.e. the best), he is thrilled. But this is just the beginning of his trials.
Fletcher does not belong to the touchy feely school of education. He believes in abuse, competition, threats of violence and then more abuse. Weaken, and he'll attack you. Fight back and he'll crush you. He's not a likeable person, though J K Simmons infuses him with a quality that means you can't take your eyes off him, even when you want to smash his head in.
The thing is, Fletcher wants to uncover a genius in his school, and his ingrained conviction is that genius only flourishes under conditions of stress. He loves to tell the story of how drummer Philly Joe Jones threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker early in his career, which was the impetus for Parker to achieve greatness. It seems a slim basis for an educational theory, especially one which involves hating the world (and being hated back) quite so energetically.
However, it sets the stage for a mano a mano showdown between master and pupil, though the odds are heavily stacked in the older man's favour. If Andre falls out of favour, he's out of the band, a threat that hangs permanently over his head like the sword of Damocles.
Andrew does meet a nice young girl and asks her out, but even this break from pressure is cast aside in his headlong determination to succeed. His father, a steady and devoted man, tries to help, but his approval is easily won. It's Fletcher's admiration he craves, but that is a gift beyond his control.
The ending of the film may stretch credulity a little, and is certainly open to different interpretations, but I can pretty much guarantee that you will be wholly absorbed in the film – and you can safely bet on Simmons winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar very soon.
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