Whiplash is the second feature-length film by director Damien Chazelle, which expands upon his 2013 short film of the same name. The plot focuses on the events that see the first-year drum student Andrew Neiman trying to achieve success. Like Achilles in the Iliad, his life forces him to question what he’s willing to sacrifice to achieve fame and glory.
A dangerous mentorship
Fletcher, the feared and renowned conductor of the fictional Shaffer conservatory best jazz band, doesn’t take long to notice Andrew. Like the steadily increasing tempo of its opening drum solo, Whiplash develops into a chilling and unsettling challenge in which the stakes keep getting higher. When Andrew manages to enter the band, the scenes become warmer and darker. Fletcher opened the door to a bewitching new world, which is also a descent into hell.
The toxic relationship between Andrew and Fletcher enthralls the viewer. They dialogue visually through close-ups focusing on Fletcher’s anger and Andrew’s pain and humiliation. Fletcher is magnetic. His charisma and search for perfection seduce his students into remaining with him, even if he holds their attention through constant dread (J. K. Simmons’ captivating interpretation of Fletcher won him the 2015 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor). Fletcher is mean, violent, and constantly treading the thin line that separates him from sadism. He recalls Full Metal Jacket‘s Sergeant Hartman, but his wickedness finds a motive in his obsessive love of jazz.
The dark path to success
The film’s structure recalls the underdog sports movie subgenre. Andrew moves closer to excellence with hard work and a trainer that pushes him beyond his limits. However, Whiplash differs because of its discouraging message. Andrew is mostly alone and incapable of creating relationships, and his constant improvement parallels his increase in affinity and resemblance with Fletcher. Eventually, his thirst for fame destroys everything else.
Jazz music represents the third character of the movie: the viewer gets to listen to long passages throughout the film. Sometimes scene cuts follow the rhythm of the soundtrack.
What playing music means
Visually, there is great attention to detail. Andrew’s pain, caused by extreme rehearsing, is pictured with close-ups of tears, sweat, saliva, and blood staining the drum kit. Details such as dirty and annotated scores, saliva flowing out of trombones, the noise of many instruments tuning, result in a de-romanticized idea of what playing music means. Whiplash seems to portray and support the belief that success is an individual matter based on hard work, like Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. But it is also a cautionary tale on the desire for excellence. It shows clearly the psychological downsides and unappealing life brought by closeness to artistic perfection.