When considering the portrayals of student-teacher relationships on film, particularly regarding music, the default is the uplifting, "Mr Holland's Opus" model. Though there's often initial reluctance, the relationship is largely a nurturing one, full of positive reinforcement, creative solutions to obstacles, and feel-good messages. "Whiplash" does not have any of those things. Rather, it portrays a student-teacher relationship with all the sentiment of a barroom brawl, one full of provocation, violence, threats, abuse, and a worrying amount of blood.
Drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a student at the best music conservatory in the country, and has caught the eye of Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), the notorious instructor who conducts the school's prestigious competitive jazz band. Andrew wants to be one of the greats, and believes that Fletcher's tough-love methods can get him there. But as Andrew becomes more obsessed with achieving perfection, Fletcher keeps pushing his limits to dangerous extremes, to the dismay of Andrew's father (Paul Reiser) and new girlfriend (Melissa Benoist).
It's so rare to find a film about artists that's actually about the pursuit of the art itself - not their romantic relationships, not their ability to overcome personal adversity, but the artist's active pursuit of bettering their craft. "Whiplash" puts the conflict between Andrew and Fletcher front and center, but it hinges on Andrew's intense drive and desire for greatness. The situation wouldn't keep escalating to the extent that it does otherwise. J.K. Simmons has rightly won heaps of praise for his performance as the sadistic, manipulative music teacher from hell, but "Whiplash" owes just as much to Miles Teller. It's Teller embodying Andrew's glory-seeking self-destructiveness combined with some seriously impressive drumming skills that sells the whole conceit of the picture.
Of course, the bulk of the credit for "Whiplash" goes to writer/director Damien Chazell. Despite few credits to his name, his work here is incredibly assured and effective. I love that he strips down the narrative to the absolute essentials, resisting the urge to add unnecessary context or to flesh out the little side relationships that might take attention away from the main event. There's a romance, yes, but it's always put in service of the larger story. Chazell isn't afraid of treating the drumming like a life-or-death battle, and parts of the movie are structured like a thriller or horror film, much like what Darren Aronofsky did with ballet on "Black Swan." He shoots the final performance like an action sequence, and it's electrifying. And I love the way the whole movie is steeped in the culture and the craft of playing music. I've never seen it done better.
I should clarify that "Whiplash" is not a candid look at this particular corner of the music world - the movie is clearly an allegory that stretches the limits of believability toward the end. If you think about the sequence of events, there's a lot that doesn't make sense. But because the director took the trouble to get all the little technical details right, it's so much easier to buy into this story, and to appreciate the level of musical talent on display. It's difficult to imagine the movie without the music - I have no particular fondness for jazz, but now I want the "Whiplash" soundtrack.
And I suspect that many a viewer with no interest in drumming, in teacher-student stories, or even music films would enjoy "Whiplash." And ironically, audience members looking for the typical, feel-good movie about musical education might be blindsided by J.K. Simmons' expertly deployed vitriol and Miles Teller's descent into percussive madness. The drama is intense, the performances are perfectly pitched, and the director takes some considerable risks that pay off in spades. I'm hesitant to call this a great film, but it's surely close enough to be up for debate.