So often have ensemble band films fallen victim to conveying particular tropes and clichés within the film’s craft. The characters are usually divided into specific categories, that allow for tensions they must overcome, in order to adequately play a difficult piece of music in front of a litany of critics that are itching to offer a scholarship to someone. Very often, band films are not about the music, but rather the social conflict due to the stereotyping of band students. The majority of students are portrayed as followers, who all follow a handful of reputed leaders whose only deviation in character scope is what instrument they play. As a result, most band films are misrepresentations of reality and show an utter disrespect to the music and the process of playing music exquisitely.
Music has the capacity to be impactful and inspirational not only for those who play it, but also for those who listen to the finished result. Not since 1995’s Mr. Holland’s Opus has a film truly captured that sentiment. Yet in Opus, the film showed the level of inspiration from the vantage of the band’s conductor, played excellently by Richard Dreyfuss. Whiplash finally is a band film (albeit more of a drumming film) that truly offers the unique perception of inspiration and aspiration from the vantage of the student without succumbing to popular band tropes.
Whiplash is a film about determination and the tendency for such determination to turn into obsession. Music may have the ability to inspire, but it is more than the simple desire to play a particular piece of music flawlessly. There is a difference between perfection and absolute perfection. In order to achieve perfection without any hint of a flaw, the musician must become one with the music. The musician has to know the material inside and out and be willing to suffer and bleed in order to achieve absolute perfection. This is the story of Whiplash, which incidentally is the title of the music that the principle character of the film, played expertly by newcomer Miles Teller, suffers to perfect for the entirety of the film.
Whiplash functions as a coming-of-age film while also conveying the message of what it means to be successful. With success comes determination. True success isn’t handed to any one person without an effort and the ability to set oneself above others. It’s about exceeding what the standard is. Whiplash is one of the first, if not the only film, that centers its plot around this premise. The true antagonist of the film is the plight one must take to achieve absolute perfection. The film’s main character must overcome not physical obstacles, but the mental anguish one creates for themselves when they know they are capable of achieving more than what they have conquered thus far. The film also conveys the message that once determination turns to obsession, it infringes on capitalizing on exhibiting true talent. The main character reaches a point in the film that he confuses what truly makes music an artist form, opposed to being recognized individually as a musician.
Whiplash adversely shows how such determination can lead to the manipulation of emotions. This is accomplished through J.K. Simmons’ astounding performance as Terence Fletcher, the band’s conductor. His demeanor is so aggressive and detrimental to his students to the point that they are capable of having a breakdown due to his intense demand for perfection. His attitude is almost maniacal and is enough to allow the main character to shift from being passionate about music to merely becoming a component that Fletcher demands of him. It ought to be noted that the entirety of this film’s message and the raw emotion throughout it hinges upon J.K. Simmons’ performance.
Having been an supporting actor for much of his career, Whiplash is the first film that has truly allowed for Simmons to shine as an actor. Simmons is brilliant in making his character’s motivations ambiguous while also eliciting a sense of unpredictability in his actions. Simmons is further able to function as a mentor while also being an adversary at the same. His scenes, such as the now infamous “Are you rushing or dragging” scene, are examples of manipulation tactics his character uses throughout the film, yet Simmons is strategic in his acting, in that he builds his character to believe his attitudes and actions are justified. As a result of doing his performance in such a manner, Simmons allows for the character to have humanity without having compassion. This conflict of character is effective in that it works within the film narrative, while also intriguing the audience to desire to see more of him. Simmons is the scene-stealer of this film and there is no doubt the ultimate of awards will come his way for his performance as Terence Fletcher.
Whiplash asks the question of whether inspiration must be forced out of someone or whether it truly comes from within. Whiplash makes the argument that perfection isn’t good enough. In order to be a true artist, their concept of what is good must be challenged and that individual must be dragged to the ground and stand up again on their own two feet. Success may come from within, but only a true artist will stand up after they have fallen. Therefore, Whiplash offers a unique message to those who want to be something. In order to be recognized above all those with the same talent, one must be willing to bleed for it and continue fighting for it, no matter what outside forces say or compel one to do. For that, Whiplash is one of the most surprising, most effective films made in recent years. There is no doubt this film will be considered a classic example of filmmaking excellence decades from now.