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Whiplash: JK Simmons’ compelling performance lent the film considerable gravitas

As JK Simmons turns a year older, here’s a revisit of his performance in Whiplash, arguably his career-best role to date.

Shreya Paul
Jan 05, 2022
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Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, was a watershed moment in the world of indie filmmaking. Chazelle, a young Harvard graduate, only had a 2009 film titled Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench to his credit. 

Chazelle’s script and concept found a home in Sony Pictures who picked up its rights and decided to distribute the film globally. 

An excruciatingly disturbing tale of a young ambitious jazz drummer Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller), Whiplash follows his journey from oblivion to fame and his struggles to maintain it.

Chazelle keenly stitches his claustrophobic and oppressive environment in the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York City, where Neimann is seen registering for the first semester. 

His unbridled devotion for the craft and need to prove something to the world soon attracts the attention of Terrence Fletcher (the inimitable JK Simmons). Terrence, a notoriously rigorous taskmaster, allows Andrew to showcase his skills in the university’s studio band of which Fletcher is the conductor.

It is at this juncture that Chazelle chooses to highlight the zenith that Andrew’s life reaches, simultaneously foreboding the audience of an inevitable fall. Andrew’s relationship with his father Jim is especially underlined in this section of the narrative, to signify how supportive the failed writer turned high school teacher is, of his musician son. 

They go for films together where he specifically buys popcorn and munchies that his son prefers. He is indulgent in the face of his son’s slightly distant behaviour. 

Andrew, on the other hand, though appreciative of his father’s gestures, is always dissatisfied with Jim’s complacency in life. 

Himself a stickler for his profession, the young boy dreams of achieving greater success in life. Andrew vehemently counters Jim’s advice and affection at every instance and ensures that he follows his own heart. Through this love-hate equation, Chazelle preempts his audience about a fundamental fault in Andrew – that of overconfidence.

Having said that, the filmmaker is also empathetic towards Andrew’s hunger for success. And thus, turns the lens to yet another driving (and arguably the most important) equation in the film – that between Terrence and Andrew. 

Hollywood has often delved into the subject of student-teacher relationships and produced inspirational gems like Million Dollar Baby (2004), An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), or even The Karate Kid (1984). 

But Chazelle chooses to pump his narrative with vicious human characteristics that are far from inspirational, but somehow, still relatable. He tells the world that excellence always comes with a price, and sometimes, the price may not be worth it. His interests lie primarily on the more ambiguous nature of humans, who tend to cross the line of propriety often.

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Terrence is anything but aspirational. However, his sheer obsession for and love with the craft are awe-inspiring. For him, the world of Jazz is so all-consuming, that anyone sharing his love for it around his orbit, is bound to get sucked into his madness. 

There is a method to his madness though – he only expects Andrew to perform things Terrence himself can and he demands Andrew learn at a pace set by his own optimal standards.

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Terrence’s exacting cruelty is irredeemable. But in Andrew’s world, it’s something inspirational. He strives to impress his mentor and repeatedly rises to the occasion to prove himself (failing miserably at times). 

Terrence, on the other hand, is relentless. He humiliates, abuses, and demotes Andrew, even going to the extent of incepting the seed of doubt in the young boy’s mind about his own worth as an artiste. 

Terrence is all about the amped-up negative reinforcement, pushing his students, challenging them to break.

Yet, Andrew and Terrence’s love for Jazz makes their bitterness almost symbiotic for one another. Each feeds off of the other to make themselves great. Chazelle’s skilful script and direction are at full display here.

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Simmons picked up an Oscar for his role as Fletcher. A thoroughly affable and gentlemanly person in real life, Simmons was closer to the adorable father in Juno than the screaming eccentric teacher in Whiplash

Throughout his interviews, many questioned him about what he tapped into while portraying the sheer wrath of the character. 

Simmons replied by saying that though he was averse to the chair-throwing, and abuse-hurling tactics of Fletcher, he agreed with the core of what the character was trying to achieve. 

“There’s a kind of numbness, a sameness, a lack of motivation in ‘good job’ culture. We’re raising a generation of kids who are being overly praised for incredibly minor accomplishments. I think it’s counter-productive,” the actor had said in an interaction with The Guardian.

An in this precise truth lies Chazelle’s Whiplash. Despite its morbid realities, its ruthless pains, and its discomfiting revelations, the film pushes you to question your drive to achieve something worthy. 

It juggles the concepts of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ and asks why one should be repeatedly forced to make a choice.

Watch the film here


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