An unrelenting immediacy distinguishes “Whiplash.” With crisp editing, it has an urgent thrust you’d usually associate with a short film determined to flash by with no fussy plot. Some strategically placed budding romance scenes give you breathing room, but not much.
The featured rivalry between teacher and student in “Whiplash” is so intense that the film is a closer kin to “Black Swan” or “Full Metal Jacket” than anything from the musical prodigy genre. Devotion to craft, the rigor of discipline, and delusions of grandeur are all explored in this tug-of-war between a young drummer and his vicious conductor/mentor.
Setting aside any underlying sadistic intent, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) as teacher determines Andrew (Miles Teller) is an unwrapped gift among the gifted at a New York City music conservatory. A drumming dweeb with Buddy Rich posters covering his room, Andrew craves the recognition and phased promotion that leads him to the competition core’s stool.
Andrew is the type who would eagerly nod along to the Banksy quote: “They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time … when somebody says your name for the last time.” Andrew is determined to become one of the greatest drummers ever and proclaims this at a family gathering when his school accomplishment isn’t duly acknowledged.
The pairing of Fletcher with Andrew’s ambition is fortuitous. Fletcher’s bizarre teaching method of demands, tests and insults are predicated on an anecdote he heard about jazz legend Charlie Parker. Fletcher’s methodical intensity should crush any aspiring student until they’re so crippled from the teaching process that discouragement will never deter them again and they will ascend to “Bird” level.
Is this a flawed teaching approach? Fletcher himself admits he never had a Charlie Parker come along in a rare moment of introspective reflection with Andrew. Yet even this admission sets up a gut-wrenching manipulation by Fletcher in the memorable climax.
For 15 years, stories involving competition and domineering have largely been comedies featuring the manic intensity of Will Ferrell, Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis.
But now we finally have a provocative drama that examines competition through two generational topics: bullying and esteem building. Andrew reminds us there are still students out there who will resist parental protection and face the challenge they demand of themselves.