Whiplash (2014) is a fantastic story about a young man who goes through hell in order to prove himself worthy.
Written by Damien Chazelle, the film centers around Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a college student who wants to be the next big jazz drummer. However, he is no doing so well in his academics which is causing him to consider changing schools. But just when he least expects it, Terrance Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the school's band teacher and wizard of jazz, gives Andrew the opportunity to join his class and learn from the very best.
His journey will not be easy, as Fletcher is know for his outrageous rage and constant battering of souls until he reaches perfection in the music. Neiman faces an unapologetic adversary, but through his hard work and constant refusal to bend to Fletcher’s wishes, will not only grow as a drummer, but also prove that he has what it takes to make it to the top.
One thing that makes Whiplash work so well is the relationship we feel with these characters. These are not superheroes, they are not space marines, they are everyday normal folks who just want to be the best at what they love. Everyone can identify with this. And having a character focus on music as his life’s goal only adds to our connection. He is a student as well. Most people know what that is like, and the way Andrew interacts with his friends and classmates shows a real sincerity to him. In short, he's likable.
Andrew’s dream is also not unimaginable. As a student struggling in life, he has a passion (jazz drumming) and he wants to be the best at that passion. We all dive headfirst into our passions, but sadly, we don't all end up engaging in our passion as a career. Andrew’s dedication to turn his passion into a career is not by accident: it draws us closer to him. He is also surrounded by characters who feel real and relatable.
Chazelle is able to craft these characters in a very real sense. None of these people feel out of place. No one is overly dramatic, strong, or smart: they all have flaws. Andrew is not a perfect human being. He makes mistakes; some make the reader/viewer feel bad for him. But these mistakes are driven by his sole goal: proving he’s the best. The way jazz and/or drumming is completely woven throughout nearly every thread of the script in one way or another gives it a sense of dedication, almost obsession. This passion is seen throughout every aspect of Andrew’s life. We therefore understand how important it is to him and how hard it is dealing with Fletcher’s constant insults. This obsession almost completely overtakes our main character, but it does so in a very real sense.
Everyone has had that one teacher that has driven them insane; the one person who knew exactly which buttons to press.
When it comes to the antagonist, Terrance Fletcher is a classic villain in every sense of the word. He is brash, overconfident, arrogant, and does not care about anyone’s opinions other than his own. His presence completely overtakes any room he enters and even when isn’t in a scene, the pressure he puts on Andrew is still felt. Fletcher’s power is infinite, but not in an extreme way. It's simply because he is able to get into the protagonist’s head and under his skin. He is very nearly like an 80s action villain, but the audience is still able to relate to him. Why?
Because Fletcher is driven by the exact same passion and obsession that drives Andrew.
This detail, while not directly stated, is clearly seen through Fletcher's actions and it helps the reader/viewer understand his motivations. In fact, one could argue that Andrew would have never reached his full potential if Fletcher had not put him through so much shit. It is a trial by fire in every sense of the word; and sometimes that's what is needed. This is even shown in the script:
Come on...!! Come on!!!
Andrew builds it further... Going beyond what even he’d planned for himself -- his arms like machines, the single-stroke roll building steam and power and pinning the audience in their seats... Fletcher raising his hands, beckoning Andrew forward... He and the drummer working together, player and conductor, competitor and coach...
Andrew is no longer just a player or just a student. He is now a competitor in every sense of the world. Fletcher knows this, an although he may be pissed off about it (with his ego as big as it is) he recognizes it and respects it. He knows deep down that pushing Andrew is what made him a better player.
This shows how teachers can be both devil and angel. Again, Fletcher is not some cyborg evil-doer, he is just simply a teacher with a big ego and a foul mouth. His pressure and constant berating may be hard to take, but deep down if you stick with him, he will build you into the best player you can possibly be. As much as Andrew or the reader/viewer may hate Fletcher (and boy did I hate him), you understand what he is doing and why sometimes that route is for the best.
The use of schools and concert halls is also a way that Chazelle helps the reader relate to the characters. Especially for people who were in the school band or chorus (really any organized group). You can associate with these settings. These are the places where everyday wars are waged. Not for the planet, but for the mind of youngsters. The school itself could be almost any local college. It’s small, but not tiny. The teachers could be any of the reader’s teachers from school. That does not mean that they are stereotypes; they're more realistic portrayals of the faulty body. Everyone has at least some kind of identifiable characteristic that helps you believe that they are real.
Andrew’s rise to power as one might put it, is the story that everyone strives for. It is the story of a man beating all the odds; telling the ones trying to bring him down “Fuck you” (quite literally). This could be the life of your neighbor, a friend, or even you. Chazelle gives us an everyday story of incredible courage and determination. He shows us that every day victories can be just as epic as Iron Man saving the world.
Andrew’s story is one of courage and determination against all odds in a very real sense. By creating relatable characters put into realistic (although dramatic) challenges, Damien Chazelle has crafted a tense, driven story that speaks to each of us in a very authentic way.