When I started Grade 11, all my friends told me to avoid getting into Mr. Johnson’s math class. He was a hard teacher, they all said. Well, as luck would have it, I got his class. As soon as the first lesson ended, I marched over to the vice principal’s office and asked to be moved into another class. I remember the vice principal being polite but not overly sympathetic. He told me it would take a few weeks to move me out. The next day I went back to Mr. Johnson’s class thinking that I would be okay. I could tough it out for a few days. But something happened that surprised me. I started listening to the man and I realised that he wasn’t hard at all. He just expected his students to learn. Three weeks later I received word from the vice principal that my request came through. I went back to the VP’s office and told him that Mr. Johnson was the best math teacher I ever had. There was no way I would leave his class.
WHIPLASH has been called a cross between THE PAPER CHASE and THE KARATE KID with a huge dose of FULL METAL JACKET thrown in for good measure, and the film certainly starts out that way. Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller, THE SPECTACULAR NOW) is a first-year student at the prestigious (and fictional) Schaffer Conservatory of Music in Manhattan. He is a jazz drummer with ambitions to be the next Buddy Rich. Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) leads the school’s premiere jazz studio band and all the jazz music students have dreams of studying under Fletcher’s tutelage. Very few earn the opportunity though, and getting through Fletcher’s door is no guarantee that you will stay for very long. He pushes his students harder than they ever thought possible and along the way he sometimes achieves greatness from them. Unfortunately for the students, that greatness can come at a huge personal cost.
Now here is where WHIPLASH differs from THE PAPER CHASE (and where Fletcher differs from my math teacher). While Professor Kingsfield (played by the wonderful John Houseman) pushed his law students with erudite and pithy comments, Fletcher is a misogynistic, homophobic, sadistic and amoral bully. Like Kingsfield, he starts off as someone you love to hate but then he becomes someone you just hate. That makes the film challenging to watch. There’s an old saying that those who can’t do, teach and that seems to be evident here, both in Fletcher and in Neyman’s father (played by Paul Reiser), who is a failed author-turned-high school English teacher. Although Fletcher rejects failure as an option both in himself and in his students, he seems to have lost the plot. In a pivotal scene, we come to realise that he is less concerned with training his students to become respectable musicians than he is with cementing his own place in history as the teacher of jazz legends.
Try as he may, Fletcher meets his match with Neyman, who refuses succumb to Fletcher’s mind games. However, in his efforts to meet his teacher’s impossible standard, Neyman loses part of himself. The film’s closing scene at Carnegie Hall is both a psychological battle between the teacher and student, and a physical battle within themselves to go to places they may never have been to before. But there is no real happy ending to WHIPLASH. Neyman and Fletcher are both winners and losers. The film ends at the right moment and it gives the audience plenty to think and talk about as the lights come up. What will tomorrow be like for Neyman and Fletcher? Being at the top of one’s profession can be exciting, but it can also be short-lived and lonely. Greatness has a price.
WHIPLASH is the brain-child of 29-year-old director and screenwriter, Damien Chazelle, who is fairly new to the movie business with only one other feature film under his belt. (While the film draws on his own experiences as a high school drummer, Chazelle is a Harvard graduate with a degree in environmental studies.) Like many indie projects, WHIPLASH started off as a short film. Chazelle submitted it to Sundance last year where it won the festival’s Short Film Jury Prize. With that laurel, he was able to secure funding to make a feature length film starring Simmons, who also played Fletcher in the short. Teller, who has been playing drums for more than 10 years, apparently practiced for 12 hours a week for a year to prepare for his part. Most of the drumming you see on screen is Teller’s, as is most of the blood.
Not surprisingly, the feature film has also picked up a couple of awards – the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival – and is already being touted for Oscar nominations for both Teller and Simmons. Both their performances are stellar and their wins would be well deserved.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 27:50.)