The black hole at the centre of this films is Dr Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons). Everything and everyone else orbits around his dark gravity. He sucks all the pleasure and personality from his students leaving behind only slavish perfectionism and empty souls.
Director Damien Chazelle‘s Whiplash is primarily about the relationship between young, fresh faced, ambitious jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) and Fletcher, the abusive, monomaniacal music professor at Shaffer Conservatory, all bald head, popping eyes and bulging veins.
Fletcher’s technique is to push his students by degrading and humiliating them with full-on psychological warfare. The hope is to create a new Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich. It certainly takes its toll on Andrew’s hands, which bleed and blister after ferocious practicing, and also his love life, as he tells his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) that she is standing between him and jazz greatness.
Between chairs being thrown across rehearsal rooms and the flying expletives, there are some interesting, quieter scenes. At a family meal, because he still has nothing concrete to show for all his hard work, Andrew’s cousins and uncle belittle his artistic nature. He bites back.
Also well handled, if extremely briefly, is the sudden broadsiding of a hire car he is racing to a jazz competition in. It comes out of nowhere, and suddenly everything is thrown upside down.
New York always looks splendid in films, and there’s a nice little homage to Jules Dassin as Rififi is showing at the picture house Andrew and his father regularly attend. The whole story is told resolutely from Andrew’s point of view, so much so that he is in every single scene. We see him asking Nicole, who works at the cinema, out for the first time. Of course she is destined to be discarded eventually as Andrew strips away anything other than drumming from his life.
Later, when he calls her to come and see him play at a show, she is in another relationship.
Obviously there is a lot of music. The two standards Caravan (Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington) and of course Whiplash (Hank Levy) are visited extensively. When he feels Andrew is playing a little out of time, to tighten the tempo Fletcher resorts to slapping the lad across the face, and although in rehearsal this was simulated, apparently the take used in the film featured actual slaps. Whiplash!
It seems as though Fletcher, like Dr. Frankenstein before him, attempts to animate dead matter in his students by sending electrical jolts into their lifeless bodies. His electrical jolts are insults and degrading barbs that shoot right to the core, designed to open new channels, but often causing more dead tissue than revitalised flesh.
Of course the creature Frankenstein has created turns against him. It’s a common enough trope in cinema, but how and if Andrew will get revenge is what keeps the viewer engaged in this very well told story.