Do you want to be great? Or, rather, do you want to be one of the greats? Charlie Parker, great? Buddy Rich, great? The best damn jazz drummer alive, great? Andrew Neymar, the protagonist in the film Whiplash, believes he does, and his newly acquired, fiercely intense instructor intends to find out if he actually has the chops to cut it, willing to either push him to the top of the musical Mt. Olympus, or off the edge of a sheer cliff as he strives for the summit.
In Terence Fletcher’s practice room at the Manhattan-based Shaffer Conservatory, artistic perfection is in constant pursuit. But this quest comes at a cost. A physical, psychological, social cost. So when Andrew, a first-year student, is selected by Fletcher as a fresh drum alternate, the young musician is both in awe and terrified.
It’s that tense unpredictability that makes the film so thrilling. Is it an unusually dark, profane example of the subgenre where a passionate but unconventional mentor leads his charges to greatness through exhausting but ultimately productive means? Or is it a grim dual character study about how the pursuit of greatness, when removed from any other considerations, including empathy and concern for others, can transform people into monsters?
And monster isn’t an exaggeration, at least for the task of actor J.K. Simmons, who plays the pathologically obsessive music teacher. Delivering a performance with such tenacity, that he seems primed to explode even when he is calm. A lesser actor would have easily overcooked this meaty role, draining it of all its subtle juice, but Simmons brings an appropriately musical sense of precision to everything the character does, from the careful way he hangs up his hat and jacket upon entering a room to the staccato rhythms of his verbal tirades, which are so extreme and intricately worded that when they hit, they land with the force of a heavyweight’s right hook.
But this isn’t a conventional battle between good kid and vicious teacher, what Whiplash conveys is how the monomaniacal focus and intensity necessary to achieve greatness can coarsen and corrupt both sides of the mentor/protégé relationship. Provoking us to question whether or not the chance at greatness is worth the sacrifice. Maybe the next Charlie Parker is better off with other elements of his life healthier and richer. Or maybe, in the midst of all the suffering that comes chasing after an elusive form of perfection, he achieves something close, maybe he even achieves something transcendent, and maybe, in that moment, it’s worth it.
Nathaniel St. Clair is CounterPunch’s social media editor.