This was the first major picture to come out from writer-director genius Damien Chazelle, back in 2014. The movie follows Andrew Neiman, the first year student at Sheffer Conservatory School and his journey striving towards excellence. The movie is a roller-coaster of emotions, with us alternating between rooting for Andrew, pitying him and at times even questioning why he is doing this to himself. But during no point into the film do we ever get to doubt his love for the instrument. He wants to be the best of the best. The next Buddy Rich.
Our introduction to Andrew is watching him practice the drums alone at his school when Fletcher walks in hearing him play. At this point, Andrew is in just another band of the school, being an alternate drummer in the band. No one special so far. But, Fletcher gives him the opportunity to join the best band of the school, and one of the best in the world. It is a huge opportunity. One that Andrew thoroughly believes he deserves. There is only one thing Andrew wants right now, and it is to impress Fletcher. The movie establishes from the first moments that Fletcher is supposed to be great in what he does. And that his reputation precedes him. Every student in the school wishes to join part of Fletcher’s band. Everyone is convinced it is their ticket to success.
So when Andrew is given a shot to join Fletcher’s band, he is absultely determined to prove his talents to his teacher. However, in his first practice sessions, Andrew realises, possibly for the first time in his life that he is not flawless. He expects Fletcher to be marvelled at his student’s talent and skill, but there is no such realisation for Fletcher, who instead seems to be very disappointed and frustrated when Andrew plays off-tempo. And he makes sure that Andrew gets a sense of that frustration by not only throwing a chair at him, but also slapping him to teach him a lesson. Fletcher believes that perfection, is often less important than a drive to be better. Drive to constantly push yourself to play better. And it is him sensing that drive in Andrew that pushes him to get the latter to the band in the first place. So now, in Fletcher’s head, the only logical follow-up is to test Andrew. To test his passion for the instrument and to see how far he would be willing to go to get better. Because, for him, he is the best teacher out there who would be able to take a musician’s talent to the next level. Maybe even produce the next Charlie Parker someday. A pivotal dialogue from the film, elaborated below, would perhaps best sum up Terence Fletcher’s character.
He soon follows it up with “I will never apologise for how I tried”. In his head, his ends justify his means (literal and mental abuse). In his head, the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged. And therefore, it is his responsibility as a teacher, to make things as hard as possible, create as much pressure as possible, to be able to create that ‘diamond‘.
The film is a battle between Andrew and Fletcher. With Andrew constantly trying to prove himself to Fletcher. In one of the first competitions shown in the film, the Overbrook competition, Andrew gets the opportunity to play on the stage following the misplacement of the notes folder for the drums. It’s a high pressure situation since he did not practice for the part before-hand since he was just the alternate. But Andrew knows it’s his one shot at redeeming himself in his teacher’s hand and he decides to grab it. This is one of the key moments when Andrew’s character stands out from the rest. Sure, the rest of the band is great and they all must be equally talented individuals. Otherwise they wouldn’t be here. But while everyone else is scared out of their wits to be around Fletcher, Andrew goes further and actually volunteers to take place in a high-pressure situation. He is not deterred by Fletcher’s intense personality, but motivated by his drive to prove himself worthy to him. So when they win first place in that competition, Andrew’s confidence sky rockets and he finally wins over Fletcher’s confidence in him as a musician. He finally becomes the core drummer in the possibly the best college club in the world.
In this dinner scene for the Neiman family, we finally get more insight into why Andrew is so passionate about his music. We see how ignored he and his talents are in his family, where they consider sports to be superior to music. So when earlier Andrew says how he does not care what people think of him, we now see that he was clearly lying earlier. He wants to be the best because he cares immensely what others think of him. Specially his family. Not to make them proud, but to show them how mistaken and ignorant they are. He wants the world to remember him. That is his idea of success. And if he has to sacrifice his relationships in order to get there, that is a sacrifice he is more than willing to make.
We cannot possibly discuss Whiplash without discussing the car accident scene. Soon after the Overbrook competition, Andrew starts feeling confident. Fletcher decides to bring in more competition so that Andrew continues to feel insecure and keeps pushing himself to do better. To outshine the competition. If we look at it from Fletcher’s perspective, the confidence that his student has newly found in himself is not the problem. The problem is how comfortable he has started to feel. Like he has proved himself and he can relax now. As a teacher, Fletcher has more insight into the world and he knows how easily replaceable anyone can be. Ironically, he never truly understands that the concept would be equally relevant and applicable to himself too. But coming back to Andrew, apparently he takes this lesson very seriously too. At the Dunnell competition, despite having just been in the car accident, despite being soaked in blood, Andrew is determined to perform. He just does not let the other players play his part. He feels like he has earned that part and he cannot let anything, even an accident get in the way of that. He screws up and they lose the competition. Andrew charges at Fletcher on the stage in front of everyone. This little showcase gets him fired from the band and expelled from the school and it also pushes Andrew to submit an anonymous complaint against Fletcher that gets him fired from his job at the school.
When Fletcher invites Neiman to play the drums for him in the upcoming JVC Fest, the latter is initially surprised at being presented the opportunity but he gladly takes it. Neiman wants to show to his former teacher that he would not get discouraged. And since Neiman has the desire to be the best of the best, to be the next Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich, he is ready to again prove himself to Fletcher. Andrew actually cares a lot more about what people think about him that he admits. He still thrives to gain Fletcher’s approval.
Turns out, it was all a ploy. Fletcher just wanted Neiman on stage, to humiliate him in front of some of the biggest names in the music industry, ensuring that Neiman’s career is over before it starts. Fletcher is willing to put his reputation at risk to get back at Neiman for costing him his job as a teacher. This is the big build-up. The big teacher-student personality face off that we have been waiting for this entire time since the movie started. It is time for Andrew to retaliate for all the times Fletecher put him down. Andrew is not deterred by the embarrassment of not knowing the notes of the music that the orchestra was performing. He is undaunted by the thought of losing his career in music because of his mistakes. Instead, he decides to play the best music he has ever played to redeem himself in front of the crowd. The most influential people in the industry that are all present in the room. And what a performance he delivers! Marvellous and flawless. He does not get discouraged by Fletcher’s threats, but plays his own music. And in finally doing his own thing, does he ultimately gain, not only in terms of playing the best drums he has ever played, but also winning over his former teacher’s respect. The whole movie had been a build-up and these last 15 minutes of the film are our reward. The teacher-student duo finally stop competing amongst each other and instead start collaborating together. As equals. And the result is unlike anything they have ever seen before.