Written and Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Genre: Monster in the House
Opening Image: We meet Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) riffing on his drum set. At school. Alone. At night. He’s a first-year student at the acclaimed Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City and clearly determined to “make it.” In one of the greatest cinematic monster/villain introductions, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) walks in on Andrew. Just from Andrew’s reaction, we know that Fletcher is Shaffer’s most respected – and most feared – teacher, someone who can make or break its students.
When Fletcher asks Andrew if he knows who he is, Andrew meekly replies yes – to which Fletcher quickly retorts then why did he stop playing? When Andrew starts to play once again, Fletcher drops another insult, saying Andrew’s response to his question was to play like some wind-up monkey. Fletcher lets Andrew play more, testing him on how fast he can get his double-time swing. As Andrew pushes himself, he hears the slam of a door – and there’s no Fletcher in sight. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity lost.
Theme Stated: As they sit in a movie theater, Andrew recounts to his dad, Jim (Paul Reiser), his forgettable encounter with Fletcher. Hoping to reassure Andrew everything’ll be ok, Jim tells him he’s got plenty of other options. But Andrew quickly replies, “What does that mean?” Jim tells Andrew when he gets to his age, he’ll get perspective. But Andrew rejects dad’s views and tells him he doesn’t want perspective.
And this will be Andrew’s theme throughout. More than that, it’s also his sin. In his single-minded pursuit to “make it,” to be one of the greats, there simply is no perspective. You’re great or you’re not. You’ve got it or you don’t. There’s no in between. Even if it kills you.
Set-Up: Andrew is part of Shaffer’s junior jazz band. He’s the back-up drummer to Ryan Connelly, the band’s core drummer. Andrew comes across Fletcher’s band while in practice. He watches through the glass door panel with longing and admiration, but when he sees Fletcher looking back at him, Andrew scoots away.
Andrew has no life other than drumming. In his dorm, he practices non-stop, working on his double-time swing. In between breaks, he listens to the greats – with a photo of Buddy Rich taped to the wall – believing… doubting… hoping he’ll be one of them. As Andrew stares at his drum kit, it’s a stasis=death peek of how his life will always be tied to this instrument.
Catalyst: In a true “knock on the door” moment, Fletcher barges in on Andrew’s band’s practice session. Fletcher listens to each band member play their instrument with disappointment – and accompanying insults. He gets to the drums and tells both Ryan and Andrew to play double-time swing. He cuts off Ryan after a few seconds. Andrew even less.
As he heads out the room, he calls on “drums” to follow him. Believing it’s Ryan who’s finally getting the call up, everyone is surprised when Fletcher points to Andrew instead.
Fletcher tells Andrew to show up at his band’s practice the next day at 6:00am sharp. It’s an invitation Andrew cannot refuse that will take his life on a dramatic turn in a way he cannot even realize.
Debate: Feeling good about himself, Andrew finally musters up the courage to ask theater attendant Nicole (Melissa Benoist) out on a date. She will represent the life he struggles with – the life of normalcy.
Andrew wakes up late and rushes to practice, hurting himself in the process – the first of many pains he will face – but he’s surprised to walk into an empty room. He double checks the room number. It’s correct but lists practice time at 9:00am. And while Andrew may think there was some kind of mistake, we know that Fletcher made no error.
As the band arrives, Andrew gets a glimpse of what’s to come when all band members fall into place in an almost military-like precision when the clock hits exactly 9:00am and Fletcher walks into the room. Clearly, this band is unlike Andrew’s previous band.
As Fletcher surveys his band, no one dares look up at him. After a very quick intro of Andrew, the band breaks into its signature piece, Whiplash. Fletcher angrily stops the band and calls out a player for being out of tune.
If Andrew was scared of Fletcher before, now he sees the real monster. Fletcher chews out a player, Metz, and throws him out of the band after driving him to tears. Surprisingly though, Fletcher admits Metz wasn’t the player who was out of tune but he didn’t know any better, which was even worse in Fletcher’s eyes.
When the band breaks, Fletcher tells Andrew the story of Charlie Parker and how he became the legendary “Bird” after Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head. How Bird achieved his greatness is a great reminder of the theme. Was Jones right or wrong in how he treated Parker? It’s a matter of perspective.
In a warm yet somewhat creepy way, Fletcher asks Andrew if he believes he’s there for a reason. When Andrew merely nods his head, Fletcher tells him to say it out loud, which Andrew does hesitatingly. This further strengthens our theme. Does Andrew truly believes he can be one of the greats – no matter the cost? It also offers us a cautionary glimpse into how Fletcher will take advantage of this belief to push Andrew where he’s never gone before.
Break into Two: As the band returns to practice, Andrew takes his place on the core drummer’s stool. This simple act represents Andrew’s active goal. This is where he wants to be and will do what is needed to stay on it.
B Story: While Jim and Nicole provide a break from Andrew’s pursuit of greatness, ultimately Fletcher is the one who will teach him – or better yet, reinforce – the theme of the story. This becomes evident when Fletcher hurls a chair at Andrew for failing to know the difference between rushing or dragging his tempo and proceeding to slap him around until Andrew is left weeping just like Metz earlier.
Fun and Games: Humiliated in his very first class, Andrew is even more determined. He ignores a call from his dad and obsesses on Whiplash. He proceeds to practice unlike he’s ever done before until his hands are a bloody mess.
Andrew goes on a date with Nicole. Despite questioning her seemingly random decision to choose Fordham as her college, they seem to hit it off, finding similarities and comfort in one another’s feelings of being unappreciated.
Midpoint: It’s the Overbrook Jazz Competition. Fletcher warns the band of what this means to the school’s reputation and, more importantly, his. While on a break between performances, core drummer Carl Tanner hands his music folder to Andrew for safekeeping. But the folder inexplicably gets lost moments later. Unable to locate it, they both fearfully tell Fletcher the folder was lost and Tanner admits to Fletcher he can’t play the music without the sheets in front of him. Andrew grabs the opportunity and tells Fletcher he’s memorized Whiplash by heart. With no choice, Fletcher puts Andrew on the core drummer’s chair.
Shaffer wins the competition. It’s a great False Victory for Andrew because this was the goal he set forth at the Break into Two. He’s got what he wants… but is it what he needs?
Bad Guys Close In: At a dinner with his dad and relatives, Andrew feels his achievements aren’t appreciated and he mocks his cousin’s football feats. This leads to an argument when Andrew boldly claims he’d rather die young but remembered than old but forgotten. While others disagree, including his dad, this is what Andrew believes in. His perspective.
Back at school, Fletcher raises the stakes by telling a very surprised Andrew he’s called up Ryan Connelly. After a brief drum off, Fletcher gives the core drummer chair to Connelly despite Andrew’s protests.
With his goal in jeopardy, Andrew breaks off from Nicole as he tells her she will only stop him from becoming one of the greats.
At the next class, Fletcher talks to the band about one of his former players, Sean Casey. It’s a surprisingly emotional moment for Fletcher as he tells them that Sean died in a car accident and, on the verge of tears, was a “beautiful player.” It’s a tribute and respect that Andrew longs for – most especially from Fletcher.
The warm and sensitive teacher is quickly replaced by the monster once again as Fletcher puts Andrew, Connelly and Tanner on a grueling and torturous all-night battle to earn the core drummer’s chair for the next competition. Profusely sweating and bleeding, the three are pushed to the limit until Andrew finally plays to Fletcher’s speed with satisfaction and earns the position.
But the experience has clearly taken its toll on Andrew, both physically and emotionally.
All Is Lost: On his way to the Dunnellen Competition, Andrew’s bus suffers a flat, forcing Andrew to rent a car. In his rush, he leaves his sticks at the car rental office and still arrives late for pre-competition rehearsals. Fletcher puts Connelly on core drums much to Andrew’s dismay. Fletcher further points out that Andrew has no sticks. Andrew argues with Fletcher in front of the band that he’s earned his spot but Fletcher calls him out by saying he hasn’t earned anything on his own merit and further insults him by calling out his dad’s failures as well.
Andrew races to grab his sticks back at the car rental place and on his way back, his car is struck by a truck. Despite being bloody and injured, Andrew makes it back to the competition and forces his way to the stage to rejoin the band. Clearly unable to play, Andrew drops a stick and ruins the performance. With no choice, Fletcher tells Andrew he’s done.
It’s the most painful words Andrew has heard as his dream of greatness comes to an end. Finally reaching his breaking point, Andrew attacks Fletcher and has to be restrained by band members and security.
Dark Night of the Soul: Andrew learns he’s been dismissed from Shaffer and Jim hires a lawyer to go after Fletcher. The lawyer reveals to Andrew that Sean Casey did not die in an accident but killed himself after suffering anxiety and depression that started when he was Fletcher’s student. Initially defending Fletcher, Andrew finally relents.
Andrew puts his drums away and starts to lead a normal life. He comes across a jazz bar and spots Fletcher playing piano on the stage. As Fletcher finishes his piece, he sees Andrew and invites him for a drink. Andrew learns that Fletcher was dismissed as well from Shaffer but doesn’t confess to his testimony. Fletcher reiterates his belief of pushing students to go beyond what they expect of themselves rather than merely saying “good job.” He retells the story of how Jo Jones threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker, and this led to Parker’s drive to be great, to be “Bird.” Fletcher believes what he did was correct. And he actually seems right, even sympathetic.
To push and not deprive the world of the next great one. This is his perspective. The A and B Stories cross… but in a false way (as we’ll find out in the Finale).
As they go their separate ways, Fletcher invites Andrew to play in his band for the coming JVC Concert… if he’s up to it.
Break into Three: Just like the 1st and 2nd Acts, it starts with the drums. Andrew pulls out his drum kit from the closet. He even calls Nicole to apologize and invite her to the JVC Concert. But she’s moved on as he learns she has a new boyfriend.
Finale: At the concert, Fletcher gives the band a quick pep talk before they go on stage. He tells the band if they play well, they could be signed by a record label or asked to join the Lincoln Center core. But he also warns them if they drop the ball, these people don’t forget.
As Andrew and the band get on stage, Fletcher pulls off one the greatest Hightower Surprises ever. He approaches Andrew and tells him he knows it was Andrew who testified against him. Shocked, Andrew is unsure how to react. But Fletcher raises it another level and announces they will be playing a piece Andrew is totally unfamiliar with. As expected, Andrew messes up badly in front of the audience – the ones who will not forget – and Fletcher victoriously tells him he just doesn’t have what it takes.
Defeated seemingly once and for all, Andrew exits the stage straight into Jim’s arms. But in a Dig Deep Down moment just as worthy as Fletcher’s Hightower Surprise, Andrew heads back on stage.
Surprised to see Andrew return, Fletcher addresses the crowd to introduce their next piece. But before he can even finish his intro, Andrew launches into a double-time swing, taking everyone by surprise. He cues in the bassist and Fletcher has no choice but to cue in the rest of the band. Despite Fletcher’s threats, Andrew plays on and launches into an unbelievable solo. It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for – and the once-in-a-lifetime performance that Fletcher has been searching for. Realizing that greatness is upon them, Fletcher crosses over to Andrew’s side and guides him through his stunning performance. Finally, Andrew has defeated – or become one – with the monster. It’s a matter of perspective.
Final Image: Unlike the Opening Image where Andrew wasn’t even worth Fletcher’s acknowledgment, the movie ends with Andrew finally earning Fletcher’s respect as they lock eyes. This time, the A and B Stories are one. Andrew has indeed “made it” as the performance comes to an end with a final crash of the cymbals.
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