This is one of those films about triumph over adversity through persistence and determination. A young man goes to a top music school and wants to become one of the best Jazz drummers. An instructor at the school, in the manner celebrated in a thousand drill-sergeant movies, treats all of the young students very harshly to toughen them up and provide them with paradoxical motivation.
In the formulaic versions of this story some students fall by the wayside but our hero only becomes more determined, until at last he (or occasionally she) proves themselves, at which point the apparently harsh drill-sergeant reveals his heart of gold.
‘Whiplash’ pushes the scenario to and then beyond the limits. The instructor is not just harsh; he is a sadist, who heaps personal humiliation on the students. He sets them against each other, plays with their emotions, and sets impossible standards that have everything to do with power and nothing to do with the imparting of technical skill or theoretical knowledge.
And our hero does become more determined, to an extent which is frankly pathological. Not only does he practice until his hands bleed, but he is involved in a near-fatal car crash and then crawls from the wreckage to make his way onto a stage for a chance to play ‘his’ part in a performance. He is a damaged, unpleasant monomaniac, who treats with derision everyone who is not also a monomaniac. He appears to have no human feeling except ambition to succeed as a drummer. He is nasty to his girlfriend (of brief duration), his kind and loving father, and everyone else he runs into.
This is the personality that the harsh instructor sets out to create, though he does not identify or empathise with our hero; he just carries on tormenting him. The instructor gets to make the occasional speech justifying this as demanding excellence, and this view is not really challenged in or by the film.
There is a beautifully filmed final set-piece in which the young hero, and therefore the cruel instructor’s philosophy, is vindicated by a superior performance. This performance is delivered in the context of an especially cruel and destructive (and frankly implausible) trap set for the hero; but he triumphs, and thereby finally earns the respect of the cruel instructor, as we always knew he would. This does demonstrate that the philosophy is actually sound – it got the desired result. This is a hymn to elitism that at least acknowledges, if only tacitly, the cost. For everyone who makes it to the promised land of excellence there are a hundred, or a thousand, people who might have been quite good players, and had some fun making music, who have been fatally discouraged because they could never be excellent.
I note in passing that none of the music students ever appear to enjoy music or have any fun playing; I know that 'Fame' was made-up and light entertainment, but there were moments when the students at the Fame Academy gave some indication that they were enjoying themselves. Not this lot. It reminded me of Andre Agassi's comment that he hated playing tennis.
This is a brilliantly made, powerful film, with some amazing photography and exploration of human relationships, but it is also horrible - a sort of 'Triumph of the Will' for Jazz.