JK Simmons is an obvious shoe-in for best supporting actor at the Oscars for his turn as extreme music mentor Terence Fletcher. He dominates every scene he is in to the point that his really feels like a lead performance, not a supporting one.
Despite this, the main protagonist in writer/director Damien Chazelle’s extraordinary film Whiplash is promising young drummer Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), a recently enrolled student at a prestigious New York music conservatory. Nieman is desperate to become one of the greats, so when he successfully joins Fletcher’s jazz band, he submits to every humiliation and abuse – including the physical – aimed in his direction. As time goes by Nieman’s drumming inevitably improves, but can Fletcher’s methods be justified, or is he merely a bully taking out his own frustrations on students?
How much the end justifies the means is the key theme here, along with that age-old debate about whether great art can only be achieved through the path of denial, pain and suffering. Nieman clearly believes in this path, as he is quite happy to chuck his girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist), remain friendless and alienate his family, including his father (Paul Reiser) – not to mention practise drumming until his hands bleed.
Some of the drumming sequences on display here have more in common with a boxing movie. Drums are duly pounded in graphic, perspiring, slow-motion close-ups with blood and sweat falling on the instruments. There is, unquestionably, a madness to what Nieman allows himself to go through. Yet at the same time, the film is ambivalent enough to let the audience make up its own mind. Terence Fletcher may be a monster to some, but there is an argument that he might be a necessary monster for great individuals to truly rise to what they are capable of. On the other hand, Fletcher is also shown to be abusive, manipulative and vindictive, having arguably lost perspective entirely. Whilst some great artists do emerge from the crucible of such extreme tough love, how many that needed just a bit of encouragement might have been crushed by it?
All told, Whiplash is a brilliantly acted, stripped down, utterly compelling film that will grip you to the final frame. In other words, it’s a must-see, albeit one with the usual warnings for strong swearing.