Whiplash [Celluloid Hero]
Sometimes a movie just digs a hole in my brain, burrows in like a parasite, and becomes impossible to extract. “Whiplash” has done just that; I have not been able to get it out of my mind since I watched it. The night I viewed it, I fell asleep thinking about it; I woke up the next morning still thinking about it; I’m surprised I didn’t have nightmares about JK Simmons.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a freshman at a prestigious music school in New York. He’s been a drummer his whole life, but always focused on jazz rather than a more mainstream sound (his idol is the incomparable Buddy Rich). He is determined to become one of “the greats”, and when the school’s most respected/feared instructor, Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) recruits him to join the highest level band, he thinks his dreams are coming true. While he knows Fletcher’s reputation as a hard-ass, he has know idea just how brutal it will be. Psychological and physical abuse are standard, while the rest of the band sits frozen as the target of Fletcher’s rage is debased. Neiman is promoted, demoted, promoted, cut, brought back, raised up, knocked down; Fletcher does this under the premise of lighting a fire under his student, but there is always the question of how far is too far, how much is motivating and how much is demoralizing.
JK Simmons won an Oscar for ‘Best Supporting Actor’, and he might be the most deserving winner I’ve seen. I’ve had band teachers that were intimidating, but nothing like this. Fletcher shook me, got in my own head as just a viewer. This guy is an all-time screen villain, up there with Darth Vader or Hannibal Lecter. Legit terrifying.
I did some research to see just how much drumming Miles Teller did, and I was impressed. He had been a drummer since his teens, but took additional lessons for four hours a day, three days a week in preparation for the role. The editing of the film revealed some of the “stunt doubles” that one would expect, but I was surprised to learn that Teller actually played on almost half the songs on the soundtrack that was used.
I’ve been drumming pretty much my entire life. I was in concert band in elementary school, concert & jazz middle school, concert & jazz & marching band in high school, concert & orchestra & pep band in college. I’ve went my entire school career with band teachers/directors of varying levels of crazy. If I had someone throwing chairs at me, slapping my face, bringing up mental trauma, I honestly don’t know if I would have stuck around. I’m a firm believer that music should be fun; I also understand that playing poorly isn’t fun, so if an instructor thinks they can motivate me to be better, I get why they would do it. The movie actually ends up justifying Fletcher’s methods, but still highlights the damage it can do. ***SPOILER ALERT*** It actually struck me as very odd that at one moment you’re learning that a former student killed themselves due to the stress Fletcher put on him, then the next moment it shows Neiman finally reaching the top while Fletcher smirks and nods. Is the implication that the former student was weak, while Neiman was strong? It’s the sort of question that is worming through my brain, wondering if I had an instructor push me in that way, would I have reached the highest levels of musicianship? Or would that teacher lay such waste to my psyche that I would put down the drumsticks forever?
On the [Celluloid Hero] scale, “Whiplash” gets an 8 out of 10.