Movie Review: Whiplash

Familiar adages tend to spring up when a person loses their footing to find themselves stuck in the staid cusp of demotivation, or abject failure. Often lovingly (sometimes condescendingly) repeated by an experienced senior, these idiomatic phrases come in the likeness of, “if at first you do not succeed, try and try again”, “anything worth doing is worth doing right”, and the hackneyed “practise makes perfect”.

Add some blood, sweat, tears and a snarling teacher who has a constant eye at your throat into the mix and you have the very essence of Damien Chazelle’s 2014 Sundance Film Festival contender, Whiplash.


19 year old jazz drumming prodigy Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) has been accepted into Shaffer Conservatory, a top United States music school. The genial musician harbors dreams of extending the lineage of great jazz drummers – a seemingly unattainable feat given how he plays the drums like an octopus, albeit a highly skilled, deranged one.

During 1 such fervent drumming session, Neiman unknowingly impresses the Conservatory’s infamous conductor, Terrence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) who invites him to become the school band’s drum alternate.


Fletcher appears encouraging to Neiman at first, regaling the urban legend of how jazz icon Charlie Parker became known by his famed moniker, the “Bird”, only after drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head when the saxophonist fumbled over a sequence.

This anecdote of Parker’s motivation to exceed his own musical capacities due to Jones’ moment of violence occurs at multiple instances throughout Whiplash — a foreshadowing guised as inspiration that the conductor impresses upon eager-to-please Neiman.

Following that brief moment of teacher-student camaraderie, the film’s tempo escalates into something viscerally darker, where Fletcher’s character becomes a lot less John Keating from Dead Poets Society, and much more Pai Mei from Kill Bill.


Audiences see the true nature of Fletcher’s deceptively-termed “teaching style”, where emotional manipulation, verbal abuse (sometimes bordering on physical) is unleashed upon his charges without the slightest thought for mercy.

In a scene, Fletcher spews brutally witty insults after throwing a chair at Neiman’s head when the latter fails to meet his demanding tempo, showing the extremes that Fletcher would resort to in order to cultivate a seamless and competitive band unit.


Suffering for one’s art receives new meaning through the film, where we see Neiman practising the drums maniacally, hands worn raw and bloody, if only driven by Fletcher’s incessant barking. While a cruel picture of the conductor has been painted, Simmon’s flawless execution of the role leaves viewers on the fence. Are his unorthodox teaching methods wholly unethical, given the ardent passion that he displays for jazz and the collective desire for success?

Simmon’s immaculately vicious portrayal of Fletcher also earned him a Best Supporting Actor in the Golden Globes Awards 2015 and a nomination for Oscars.


Plot-wise, Whiplash draws certain parallels to Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 psychological thriller, Black Swan,. Both primarily focus on neurotic protagonists, though Neiman displays a measure of spunk that Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers didn’t quite possess.

Comparatively, Whiplash’s storyline reaches a stasis, where the mutually destructive, yet curiously beneficial relationship between Neiman and Fletcher fuels the bulk of the film, leaving no room for presence of the minor characters of Whiplash. Terse cinematography and masterful editing make up for the slightly hollow story, heightening Whiplash’s cinematic experience.

There is much to praise when a film devoid of mind-numbing explosives and car race sequences flung more adrenaline-inducing scenes at its viewers than any action movie churned out during the past year. For that, Whiplash deserves all its acclaim and more.

Rating: 4.5/5 


Release date: Jan 15

Runtime: 106 minutes

Language: English and Bahasa Indonesia

Censorship Rating: PG

Genre: Drama, Musical

Director: Damien Chazelle

Main actors: Miles Teller, J. K Simmons, Paul Reiser

Photos courtesy of Sundance Institute.