The relationship between a talented musician and his coach can be fraught. How to learn and keep stretching yourself, how to take criticism without getting discouraged, how to know your real worth, all of these questions come up in Whiplash. Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a talented drummer, studies with Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), a harsh music professor at a selective New York conservatory. Fletcher’s technique is to insult people and even abuse them verbally to the point of humiliation and permanent psychological damage.
Director Damien Chazelle’s opening scenes subtly dramatize Andrew’s longing for a girl, and make him look sort of normal. There is one girl in particular, Nicole (Melissa Benoist). She keeps us riveted and curious and wanting to spend more time with her as do the other drummers and some of the musicians who were beautifully photographed, but the movie is not about them.
At first, we think Andrew is just a very ambitious musician, but slowly his character shows him to be otherwise. The movie becomes a duel between two crazy people. When the face offs occur they have the grandeur of gladiatorial battles. The boy has to keep standing up to the man who would be his master. Sometimes the movie feels like a metaphor for all relationships that cannot ever be lived on a peer level. One person must dominate. The other must yield. Or is the masochism/sadism relationship something more common than usually talked about? It is so rarely explored on film (at least in mainstream movies) that here it brutalizes not just Andrew but the audience as well.
After years of watching Simmons act on TV, in movies, and most recently in a series of very effective advertisements for Farmers Insurance, it is satisfying to watch him land a perfect performance like this. Miles Teller is especially fine as the drummer, and he plays all of the classic jazz music which relieves some of the pain of the drama.
In the end, the movie does not resolve anything. It just stops, as if this twisted relationship would go on forever, stuck in unresolvable conflict. One can never be good enough and the other can never be satisfied with the artist’s performance. Even though the movie seems a sick spectacle, it is impossible to look away.