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Whiplash and the Quest for Greatness

Whiplash, Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring J. K. Simmons, Miles Teller, and Paul Reiser. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, 2014. Rated R for strong language, including some sexual references. Running time: 107 minutes.

Whiplash draws its title from the name of a pounding big band instrumental by Hank Levy. It is one of the pieces with which conductor Terence Fletcher (portrayed by J. K. Simmons, who won an Oscar for the role) either will destroy student drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) or inspire him to greatness.

Playing for Fletcher at New York’s prestigious Shaffer Conservatory is nightmarish. Fletcher is demanding to the point of inflicting emotional and physical abuse. He works students grueling hours and pits them against each other for position. At one point, he repeatedly slaps Neiman’s face, asking if he can keep time.

In short, Fletcher is an abusive jerk. He rationalizes his behavior by repeating anecdotes about other great musicians who suffered abuse and by claiming students won’t excel unless he pushes them. He is an easy man to hate.

Yet Fletcher does have a genuine love for jazz music and for leading musicians in great performances. To a point, Fletcher succeeds in driving his students to succeed. The problem is that he frequently pushes beyond that point and places his students at risk of emotional meltdown and physical harm.

Neiman tolerates Fletcher’s abuse because, whatever else might be said about Fletcher, he does know and love jazz music, and he strives for excellence in its performance. Neiman, already a hard worker, redoubles his efforts under Fletcher, often pushing himself to exhaustion and to bloodied fingers.

The plot revolves primarily around the conflict between Fletcher and Neiman. Will the master destroy his student, especially after Neiman rebels, or will he help his student soar, despite himself? To see, you’ll have to watch the film’s incredibly tense climax.

The direction of the film is excellent; the jazz performances seem genuine despite the fact that neither of the main actors is a professional musician. Teller’s acting is spot on, as is that of Paul Reiser, who portrays Neiman’s father.

Primarily what elevates this film to greatness is Simmons’s performance. He plays the driving, abusive, vindictive teacher perfectly—yet he softens the character with moments of joy and of sorrow in scenes that reveal Fletcher’s better side.

The film’s only notable flaw is its side story of a romance between Neiman and another student—there doesn’t seem to be much point to this except to introduce a significant female character. The romance is flat almost from the beginning, yet apparently it is supposed to illustrate, once it fails, that Neiman gives up too many other values in pursuing his music or that he is condescending toward those without his drive.

At its heart, Whiplash is the story of a young man who strives for greatness in his chosen career and who struggles to overcome the failings of his overbearing mentor to do so. The film is inspiring, not only because it portrays the quest for greatness, but because the people who created the film achieved greatness in their work. They are maestros of cinema.


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