Yes, I have had teachers in the past who succeeded in shattering my ego to where it took me an incredibly long time to build my confidence back up to where it once was. I think it’s safe to say we all have had at least one vindictive instructor at one time or another who made our lives a living hell and robbed us of our morale to where the emotional scars we received never fully vanished. But the experience does leave us with an important question; did we improve as students under that teacher’s tutelage, or were they just determined to make us feel infinitely miserable to satisfy their own ego? I’d like to think I got something from the most brutally honest teachers I have studied with because it will, at the very least, keep me from spitting in their faces with a bitter vengeance.
I think it’s likely you will be reminded of those teachers when you watch “Whiplash,” a perfectly titled movie which features the anti-Glenn Holland of music instructors, Terrence Fletcher. Played by J.K. Simmons in an utterly brilliant performance, Terrence is as talented a teacher as he is a terrifying one, and hopefully you have never had to deal with someone like him. But if you have, you have my deepest sympathies and I hope you have found a way to move past such a traumatizing experience.
Miles Teller stars as Andrew Neiman, a 19-year-old jazz drummer who is more than intent on becoming one of the greatest drummers who ever lived. Andrew studies at an elite music conservatory in New York and is working his way up through the ranks when Terrence comes upon him playing one day. Terrence says very little to Andrew and seems eager to see what the young man has to offer. But soon after, Terrence invites him to join his class which has the top jazz ensemble in the conservatory, and this gives Andrew’s ego a major boost to where he finds the courage to ask out Nicole (Melissa Benoist), the girl who works at the concession stand at his favorite movie theater.
Before the start of class, Terrence encourages Andrew to enjoy the process of playing and not to worry too much. But after class begins, Terrence quickly turns into a nasty SOB as he hurls insults as well as furniture at his students if they’re even the slightest bit out of tune. It takes almost no time for Andrew to incur his wrath, and Terrence shows no limit as to how far he will go in verbally abusing a student. He is determined to push Andrew beyond his limits and then some, and this leads to nights when the aspiring drummer becomes a water fountain of sweat and leaves with some nasty cuts on his hands to where band aids cannot stop the bleeding.
The effect Terrence has on Andrew is incredibly profound on him not just as a musician, but as a person as well. While he may be improving as a drummer, Andrew becomes an increasingly difficult person to get along with. At family gatherings, he comes to insult others who look down on his drumming aspirations, and he coldly dumps Nicole when he feels their relationship will get in the way of his mission to become the greatest drummer who ever lived. By the time “Whiplash” reaches its thunderous climax, you’ll be wondering who the victor of this tumultuous teacher/student relationship truly is. When you look at it closely, it could be either of them.
It doesn’t take much to see that “Whiplash” is a very personal story for Chazelle as he himself was a drummer in a high school music conservatory who lived in fear of his teacher and of screwing up a single note. Right from the start, he does an excellent job of setting up just how feared Terrence Fletcher is long before we see him viciously berating his students as if they have no reason to exist. Students stand rigidly at attention whenever he enters the room, fellow teachers don’t even hesitate to step out of his way when he bursts into their classrooms to find new musicians, and heaven forbid if you misplace your music or your drum sticks as you will suffer the man’s wrath in a way which makes you feel like you had it coming.
Now any actor can play a screaming jerk, but it takes a great one to make a jerk of a character into a fascinating and complex human being. This is what makes Simmons’ performance as Terrence Fletcher so damn good; he lets you know what he’s thinking without having to spell it out for the audience. Despite his brutally draconian ways, you can see he is searching for someone truly great and will do anything to get it. Seriously, he will do anything.
This all leads to the “good job” story Terrence tells Andrew, and I’m still thinking about what Terrence said long after the movie ended. On one hand, we cannot condone the way Terrence treats his students, but “Whiplash” has you wondering if being too nice to an aspiring student does them more harm than good. Sometimes brutal honesty is called for to get someone to learn, especially one who is determined to be the best at what they do. Still, there’s got to be a limit to how harshly you can treat a student before they suffer a horrific nervous breakdown.
Miles Teller’s star has been on the rise for a while now, and he’s turned in fantastic performances in the “Footloose” remake and “The Spectacular Now.” Teller was also in “21 & Over,” but the less said about that one the better. As Andrew Neiman, he gives one of the most exhausting performances any actor could have given in 2014, and there is absolutely no doubt he put his entire heart and soul into this character. Teller keeps pounding at those drums as if his life depended on it, and that really is his blood spattered all over the drum set (imagine how much money the studio saved on makeup and special effects). Teller shows a true fearlessness as he takes Andrew from being an easy-going guy to one who reaches his breaking point and then goes beyond it to where Terrence’s intimidating ways will not hold him at bay.
Writer/director Chazelle takes us on a journey which is as cathartic for him as it is for the rest of us, and “Whiplash” stirred up emotions in me I haven’t felt in a long time. It’s an amazing achievement especially when you take into account he had only 19 days to shoot this movie in. Few movies these days take you on such an emotionally pulverizing ride, and this is one of them.
* * * * out of * * * *
Please feel free to check out the interviews I did with Simmons, Teller and Chazelle on “Whiplash” on behalf of We Got This Covered down below.