Quick Answer: The central relationship in Whiplash is between Andrew, an ambitious music student, and Fletcher, his brutal conductor. The film filters this relationship through the lens of competative jazz music, making this brutality seem almost excusable. But at its core the relationship, no matter how beneficial for Andrew’s musicianship, is abusive.
One crucial addition that Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of Whiplash (2014), made to the feature film adaptation of his original short is a deceptively simple scene: the film’s opening. Whiplash opens with a shot of Andrew (Miles Teller), a freshman studying jazz drumming at the fictitious Schaffer Conservatory, practicing intensely when he is interrupted by Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons). Fletcher is the best and the harshest conductor at the conservatory. He listens to Andrew’s playing, directs him brutally and, just as Andrew is struggling to play quickly enough to appease the tyrannical conductor, leaves. According to Chazelle, this scene is a microcosm for the entire film. “This is a scene that winds up basically being replayed throughout the movie,” he told The New York Times. “It’s the teacher and the student, it’s the student not living up to what the teacher demands of him, and it’s this moment right here [when Fletcher walks out] – it’s the failing to achieve what you want to achieve.”
Chazelle’s summation of this scene lays out the main conflicts in the film: man vs. man and ultimately man vs. himself. Andrew and Fletcher are the only two characters who receive any significant amount of screen time in the film – their contentious relationship is the driving force for the whole story. In some ways this relationship is an externalization of Andrew’s own self-destructive ambition. But Fletcher’s own drive and ambition lead him to push Andrew in ways that escalate from merely harsh to downright abusive.
From the audience’s standpoint, Andrew is already extremely successful. He’s attending Schaffer, which is, he repeats throughout the film, the best music school in the country. After a lot of blood, sweat and tears, he becomes a core member of that group, displaying a level of musicianship that, even without understanding music, we can appreciate by watching him play. The way that the camera cuts between wide shots of his flailing arms and close-ups of Andrews hands show how the rapid precision of his jazz drumming requires both physical exertion and minute control.
But as Andrew tells his girlfriend, he doesn’t just want to be great – he wants to be “one of the greats,” like Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich. In his mind, Fletcher represents the key to this gargantuan success. His extreme standards for himself mask the cruelty of Fletcher’s treatment of him, almost making the abuse seem rational. After all, practice makes perfect; therefore, a mentor who is driving him to practice has his student’s best interests at heart. However, Fletcher’s motivation tactics border on the sadistic. Over the course of the film the intimidating mentor, whom Chazelle describes as “seductive and yet scary all at once,” verbally abuses, humiliates and slaps Andrew, as well as demonstrates a penchant for throwing furniture. All the while, Andrew embraces Fletcher’s behavior, convinced that this abuse will make him great. The film explains this seemingly baffling ideology by referencing an anecdote about jazz legend Charlie Parker: according to Fletcher, Charlie Parker messed up during a big performance, leading drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head. He claims that this violent incident is what made Charlie Parker into such a great musician. In reality Jones threw the cymbal at Parker’s feet, embarrassing him but not physically threatening him. Whether the film’s change to the story is accidental or purposefully used to show Fletcher’s twisted moral code, both Fletcher and Andrew believe that this level of brutality is necessary to make a student great.
JK Simmons as “Terence Fletcher” in Whiplash (2014)
Viewed outside of the ambitious world of professional music, Andrew’s situation is a classic example of emotional abuse. He isolates himself from his family and any other sources of outside support. He accepts and justifies Fletcher’s unconventional methods. When he messes up and incurs Fletcher’s wrath, he practices harder and harder, as if he blames himself. And when his father asks him how things are going with his studio band, he replies, “Good. I think he [Fletcher] likes me more now.” Andrew confounds greatness with Fletcher’s approval.
Despite the fact that Andrew could be classified as a victim, he is not a particularly sympathetic character. He is snarky to a girl he is dating (Melissa Benoist) because she isn’t as ambitious as he is, and then breaks up with her because he thinks that she will only distract him. He is so goal-oriented that he drives everyone out of his life, including his dad (Paul Reiser) with whom he’d previously been close, and he makes it abundantly clear that he thinks he is better than everyone else. (This is a man who broke up with his girlfriend, alienated his dad and purposefully has no friends because he “just never really saw the use.”) But sympathetic or not, Andrew doesn’t deserve Fletcher’s abuse – even if he seems to crave it.
Melissa Benoist and Miles Teller in Whiplash (2014)
And while it could be argued that Andrew’s one-track mind made him especially vulnerable to this harmful relationship, he is not the only student who has gotten caught up in Fletcher’s mind games. Fletcher tells the ensemble about Sean Casey, a talented former student of his who recently died in a car crash. However, the audience finds out later that Casey committed suicide, an action precipitated by the depression and anxiety that he developed while under Fletcher’s mentorship. Casey’s death is mirrored in the film when Andrew, spurred by Fletcher’s wrath to speed to a competition, flips his vehicle. But even severe injuries don’t stop him from climbing out of the wreckage, racing back to the performance center and trying to play with bloody hands. Just like Casey, Andrew lets Fletcher’s pressure push him to the point that it is almost killing him. The extremes that Andrew goes to in order to appease Fletcher, and the tangible toll that Fletcher’s teaching took on his former student, remove any shadow of a doubt that the conductor’s methods are more than just unconventional; they’re inhumane. It is easy to excuse a few cruel words for the sake of artistic achievement, but now Fletcher’s cruelty has a body count.
Andrew’s car crash should be the final straw; Andrew attacks Fletcher on stage, is kicked out of Schaffer and then testifies with Casey’s parents to get his former teacher fired. But Andrew’s desire to be great is too great to simply move on. Music is everything to him. When we see Andrew after the fallout of his expulsion from Schaffer he is aimless. He never built a life outside of music and it seems that he doesn’t know how.
So it’s no surprise that when he ends up playing music under Fletcher yet again. The audience is able to see how twisted this attachment is because their position outside of the film, and most likely outside of the world of competitive jazz, makes them objective; Andrew has no such vantage point. And even if he could see the situation clearly, he likely wouldn’t care. When Fletcher’s olive branch turns into a set up, Andrew refuses to back down, brushes off the humiliation and gets back on stage. He takes control of the band, and maybe, just for a moment, of his abusive relationship with Fletcher. Fletcher’s eyes light up at Andrew’s rogue drumming and he begins conducting him once more. This scenario, with Andrew playing and Fletcher instructing him, bookends the film, but this time instead of Fletcher walking out he and Andrew work together. It reveals the relationship that is at this film’s core – one that is toxic and abusive, but also symbiotic.
Miles Teller as “Andrew Neimann” in Whiplash (2014)
Andrew has achieved a level of greatness that both he and Fletcher have been desperately chasing since the beginning of the film – Fletcher has finally found his Charlie Parker. But greatness did not spell a happy ending for Charlie, and it doesn’t seem any more likely to do so for Andrew. Maybe after a few more years under Fletcher he will end up like Sean Casey. When Chazelle was asked where he sees the characters going after the film, he said that “there’s a certain amount of damage that will always have been done. Fletcher will always think he won and Andrew will be a sad, empty shell of a person and will die in his 30s of a drug overdose.” The way that Andrew talked about Charlie Parker’s death – saying that he would “rather die drunk and broke at 34 [like Parker] and have people at a dinner table talk about [him] than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remember who [he] was” – makes the audience think that he might know that that this could be his fate; he certainly doesn’t seem to care.
This callousness about his own wellbeing is what makes his relationship with Fletcher so harmful in the first place. However, Whiplash doesn’t provide any answers as to whether such a degree of greatness can be reached without this kind of extreme sacrifice and abuse. Andrew was talented before he met Fletcher, but the effect that Fletcher had on him is undeniable. Not all of those effects are positive – he is left both mental and physical scarred – but the one thing that he really cared about, his drumming, has blossomed under the abuse. When the two of them lock eyes at the end of Andrew’s exhilarating solo it is clear that this is the moment that they’ve both been waiting for.