Teachers live in duality with their students. The students either love or hate the teacher, depending on how the teacher is perceived. Some of that is well earned. Teachers have the power to make or break students. They can be a blessing or a curse. That’s the context of the new movie Whiplash.
The movie follows Andrew (Miles Teller) a drummer in a musical conservatory in New York. His goal in life is to be one of the greats. He works hard at his craft. That hard work catches the eye of Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), a teacher who directs the studio band.
Fletcher is less of a teacher and more of a drill sergeant. He is abusive and profane. As the arbiter of what is right and wrong with the band, he rules with an iron fist. In one exchange with a section of the band, he notes that one of them is out of tune. He says, “Either you’re deliberately out of tune and sabotaging my band or you don’t know you’re out of tune, and that’s even worse.”
When Andrew gets tapped to be an alternate in the studio band, he makes it his goal to be the lead drummer. Fletcher does his part to drive Andrew onward. The director recounts a story where the great Charlie Parker was playing with drummer Jo Jones. Parker makes a mistake and Jones throws a cymbal at Parker’s head, nearly decapitating him. Fletcher tells Andrew that Parker went into hiding for months, rehearsing incessantly, and emerged as the great he is remembered as being.
The story proves to be Fletcher’s rationale for the abuse he metes out to students. He is demanding of them because he believes those demands, the abuse, will create better musicians. But there are lots of broken students in Fletcher’s wake.
Andrew is so dedicated to being one of the greats and fulfilling Fletcher’s wishes, he comes to a performance despite having just been in a car wreck, bleeding from his head and hands, knowing if he does not perform he will lose his spot in the band.
Fletcher pushes Andrew so hard Andrew breaks up with his girlfriend in order to pursue the greatness Fletcher demands and he which thinks he wants for himself. He tells Nicole (Melissa Benoist) that he knows his desire to be remembered will get in the way of their time and she will come to hate him and his drumming. Andrew wants to break it off now before there is any real damage. Her response makes it clear that the damage is done by his arrogance and lack of awareness.
This film has stellar performances. Simmons is spot on as a teacher blinded by power and position. He has just the right mix of abuse and pathos. We see this in a scene where he hears that a former student died and real emotion and grief is shown. Simmons should be nominated for an Oscar.
Teller gives a star-turning performance. His acting is one thing, but his drumming is beyond wonderful. Teller drums as a hobby and reportedly rehearsing for this movie gave him blisters and bleeding hands. Add to that his single-minded focus as Andrew and he emerges as one of today’s great young actors.
The Scripture verse I cannot get out of my mind after watching this movie is James 3:1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”
A teacher’s power can easily be abused. James’s admonition is that those who become teachers need to be humble. Without that humility arrogance and pain can be inflicted under the guise of teaching and correcting. Those who stand in the role need to remember that a time is coming when their actions will be called into question and an account given.
Whiplash is one of the best movies of this year.
Rated R for strong language including some sexual references
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
With: Miles Teller (Andrew), J. K. Simmons (Terrence Fletcher), Melissa Benoist (Nicole), Paul Reiser (Jim)