Why, one might ask, would any student endure such treatment?
Possibly because in pursuit of becoming the very best, young Andrew is willing to do whatever it takes. Which may include giving up a social life, practicing till his fingers bleed and, worst of all, enduring daily abuse from his band leader.
First and foremost, I was struck by the superb level acting in this film. The performances of Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, as drummer and band master are award worthy, without question. But the supporting actors are no slouches either. I was particularly taken by the performance of Melissa Benoist as Andrew's girlfriend.
Kudos must also go to the brisk editing and focused direction by writer and director Damien Chazelle. There was never a moment in this film when I was not totally engaged. As a writer, I can be quite critical about what I see on the screen and am prone to ask myself how I might have rendered a particular scene better. This movie, however, left no room for my attention to wander. The tension continually rose and the twists in the plot continued to move in unexpected ways.
For me, the real icing on the cake in watching Whiplash is the ethical question it poses:
Terence Fletcher says at one point: "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'". His point here is that to make any artist believe his work is 'good' forever relegates him to mediocrity. An artist must forever be pushed to go further, to be told that his efforts to date are worthless, sub-par, not good enough (only he says these things in much more colourful R-rated language.) Such an attitude, of course, is Fletcher's justification for all manner of mental torture and abuse. And for what? So that one student in a hundred, or maybe a thousand, or even a million, may break through to that rarified world of musical genius--all others discarded as emotional wreckage along the way?
On first thought, Fletcher's method, his 'every means justifies the end' approach is indefensible, but then he asks us to consider the alternative: a world without genius, with no Michelangelo, no William Shakespeare, no Charlie Bird... implying that, without the kind of suffering Fletcher so expertly brings to bear, such personalities could never be.
The world of the professional artist: actor, painter or musician is brutally competitive. Barriers of discouragement litter nearly every step along the way. In the end what does it take to finally 'make it'? Clearly talent is not enough. In the movie's glorious climax the answer finally becomes clear--to young Andrew, at least: to make it, above all, and no matter what, you must refuse to be discouraged.
Best movie I've seen all year, hands down.