Andrew Neyman starts bleeding from his hands after trying to get the tempo right in his drum solo for the thousandth time. That is, ‘right’ for his teacher Terence Fletcher, played by renowned character actor J.K. Simmons. At the end of the scene, Fletcher barks, ‘Alternates, you wanna clean the blood of my drums?!
Andrew (Miles Teller in a hyper-physical role), is an ambitious and talented young drummer, enrolled in one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the country, but troubled by his own timidness and insecurities – traits that become increasingly fascinating as the film progresses. As he aims higher in the cut-throat environment of the music world, Andrew’s burgeoning talent and psychological issues intrigue studio band conductor Fletcher, who is on the lookout for a new protégé. Meanwhile, Andrew battles his shyness and begins dating picturehouse counter girl, Nicole (Melissa Benoist). However, the relationship comes to a standstill after Andrew realises that romance cannot compromise his dream.
Director Damien Chazelle sought to recreate the incessant feeling of fear that he endured while training as a professional drummer, and most importantly a fear of his teacher; consequently, each musical scene almost has the ruthlessness of a war film. The sheer violence of the dialogue and the brutish nature of their rehearsals seem to fuel the film’s core idea, that being, how does one achieve artistic greatness, and at what cost. The film’s power comes from its central deeply complex artistic and personal relationship – how Fletcher manipulates Andrew’s weaknesses, becomes determined to break him and wants to be recognized as the primal factor behind his future success. For that to happen, Fletcher embarks on a daily routine of verbal and physical abuse to push Andrew beyond his limit.
Technically, the film is bathed in glowing amber and riddled with quick-fire jump-cuts, emphasising the intensity of the hellish encounters between the central characters, with shots of earplugs and drumsticks, nervous glances, blisters and cut hands – all of which depicts the amount of effort that musicians, and all artists, put into their craft. The score is electrifying, mirroring the intense rehearsals of Fletcher and his band as they strive for perfection. Throughout the film, the group attend various competitions, the zenith of which is that greatest of stages, New York’s Carnegie Hall. The film’s concluding chapter is a breathtaking, and moving depiction of talent reaching its point break.
In my interview with J.K. Simmons, he explained that the theme of struggle and art crystallised in this final sequence is ultimately ‘the debate that the film inspires. My personal take on it is, certainly, the level of abuse and intensity might not be required or even conducive to great art, but the argument can be made that a lot of our great artists or musicians were people who drove each other to the edge.’ Secondly, on the question as to whether Andrew yearned to be Fletcher’s ‘Charlie Parker’ (one of the most talented jazz musicians in history), the actor responded, ‘Yeah absolutely, that was his goal he came in with. What was really interesting is that the two characters in the film have the same goal, but need to realise that, and come to terms with it.’ I added that perhaps adversity is a driving factor towards artistic brilliance, he responded, ‘Yeah absolutely, and I am driving. My guy has the whip.’
– Whiplash will be released in cinemas nationwide 16 January 2015