Disturbing determination in ‘Whiplash’ film

Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a young and ambitious drum student taught by the dominant and aggressive Mr. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) in “Whiplash.” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures)
Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) is a young and ambitious drum student taught by the dominant and aggressive Mr. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) in “Whiplash.” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures)

Today’s society has become built upon competitiveness, structured so only the strong-willed survive. Maybe we’ve become too competitive; hence the increase in participation trophies for kids today. Yet with such a scarce job market in America, college students are taught that they must distinctly separate themselves from their competition. They’re told time and time again that only the best in their field will be granted such opportunities for the future. The question remains: does our desired practice have to become the most important thing in our life in order to become the best?  Should students be taught that this desired practice should be the most important subject in their life? The newly released indie drama and one of the most intense films of the year,  “Whiplash”, explores the notion of what it takes to succeed in today’s competitive society, determining the thin line between passion and obsession.Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, “Whiplash” tells the story of a musician’s struggle to become the lead drummer in the school’s top jazz band, led by the school’s frightening maestro.

Miles Teller, star of last summer’s “The Spectacular Now”, plays ambitious first-year drummer Andrew Neyman, the newbie at New York City’s top music school, and one of the best in the country.  The tempo of the film rapidly begins during the very first scene, when the school’s notorious jazz conductor, Mr. Fletcher, played marvelously by J.K. Simmons, stumbles upon Andrew practicing alone late at school. Fletcher immediately commands Andrew to perform a “double-time swing”, leaving him unimpressed and resulting in him walking out during Andrew’s impromptu audition for the conductor.

This scene reflects the entity of the entire film, the lengths at which students will go in order to impress their instructor, in order to prove themselves worthy.  Norbie Kosinski, a percussion student at DePaul University’s School of Music and an avid drummer of 11 years, says this type of dissatisfaction is normal.

“Your first couple days of music school become a reality check.  You’re not as good as thought you were. You may have been the best in high school, but here you could be the worst of the program,” Kosinski said.

Simmons possesses the perfect portrayal of dominance in the film, bringing a human approach that allows any audience member to put a name on an old teacher or coach that resembles the character. His fearful authority provides two options for his students: push your limit to their expectations, or quit.

Before Andrew could choose either option, Fletcher unexpectedly decides to make him the alternate drummer in the school’s top jazz band. It’s here, in the practice room scenes, where Andrew’s limit is pushed exceedingly, where we get a sense of Fletcher’s extreme teaching manner.  Andrew’s drive strives from the insecurity produced by Fletcher in these scenes.  What begins as verbal abuse from Fletcher soon becomes much more physical, as he slaps Andrew across the face for drumming out of tempo.

“You hear a number of rumors about how hard teachers can be on their students; it’s scary,” Kosinski stated. “I heard about this guy that would blindfold his students and command them to play, all while popping plastic bags by their ears in order to teach them how to focus.”

Andrew soon becomes engulfed with his drumming; developing blood-popping blisters, only to wrap them with band aids and continue on playing. Drumming eventually becomes the most important aspect of his life, causing him to break up with his girlfriend. His only explanation to her was that she would hold him back from becoming “one of the greats.”

Day in and day out, Andrew practices “Whiplash,” the same song Fletcher instructs them to play every class.  By the film’s second act, it’s clear Andrew’s passion of drumming transitions into something of an unhealthy obsession.  It becomes uneasy to watch Andrew play over and over, splattering blood over his drum kit, but we see stuff like this regularly.    

Andrew’s extreme drive to succeed reflects what many think it truly takes to become “one of the greats” in today’s society.

“I know students that spend their whole day in the practice room. It’s their life,” said Kosinski. “Last year, 1600 students applied for the music program at DePaul. Around 64 were accepted.  You have to prove yourself worthy here if you want to succeed.”

Throughout the film, Chazelle presents a clear sense of disturbance in the way Fletcher transforms Andrew. In the film’s jaw dropping finale, you’ll be asking yourself if Fletcher’s extreme lessons were worth it.

There’s a scene in the film where Fletcher claims that two most harmful words in the English language are “good job.” Perhaps he’s right.