Whiplash does for music what Birdman does for acting: it shows the agony as well as the ecstasy that seems to come with the territory. Incidentally, both movies feature a lot of jazz. Whiplash tells the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), who is a passable drummer and wants to become a great one. He enrolls at Shaffer Conservatory in New York and starts playing in their Studio Band. If a jazz orchestra ever reminded you of a democratic collective, forget about it here. The band’s conductor and teacher is called Terence Fletcher, played by J. K. Simmons, and he is as sadistic as they come. When he enters a room, all dressed in black, his musicians snap to attention, like soldiers.
Fletcher will make a great drummer out of Andrew, but it’s one hell of a deal: it might cost you more than you are willing to give. Plus you might turn out to be a despicable human being. That is exactly Fletcher’s mission: he wants to push his students so that the next Charlie Parker can become the next Bird. He sincerely believes that his oppressive teaching is the way to greatness. Listen to his definition of a good job. If you want to know about dominance and submission, seek no further. Look at this movie sideways, and it’s a horror film.
Andrew sees through Fletcher’s methods, but here is the thing: just because you are able to spot a sadist doesn’t mean you’re not affected by him. Something is going to rub off. On the surface, Whiplash seems like an easy movie, but I am not so sure. Quitting doesn’t mean Fletcher has won any more than Andrew has lost. In a sense, you don’t quit at all. Andrew starts surprising even himself, in good ways and bad ways. Was it worth it, in the end? There’s only one way to find out.