Andrew Neiman is a first-year jazz student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory in New York. He has been playing drums from a young age and aspires to become like Buddy Rich. Famed conductor Terence Fletcher discovers Andrew practicing in the music room and invites him into his studio band as the alternate for core drummer Carl Tanner. Fletcher is strict and abusive toward his students, mocking and insulting them; when the band rehearses the Hank Levy piece "Whiplash" and Andrew struggles to keep the tempo, Fletcher hurls a chair at him, slaps him and berates him in front of the class.
At a jazz competition, Andrew misplaces Carl's sheet music. Since Carl cannot play without it, Andrew steps in, telling Fletcher that he can perform "Whiplash" from memory. After a successful performance, Fletcher promotes him to core drummer. Soon after, Fletcher recruits Ryan Connolly, the core drummer from Andrew's former lower-level class. Andrew believes Connolly is the less proficient drummer and is infuriated when Fletcher promotes him to core. Determined to impress Fletcher, Andrew practices until his hands bleed and breaks up with his new girlfriend Nicole, believing she will hold him back. He endures a gruelling 2 A.M. tryout session with Fletcher and the other drummers in the class, in which Fletcher kicks furniture and screams at him, and earns back the core spot.
On the way to another competition, Andrew's bus breaks down. He rents a car but arrives late and realizes he left his drumsticks at the rental office. After a dressing-down from Fletcher, Andrew races back to the rental office to retrieve the drumsticks, but his car is broadsided. He crawls from the wreckage, runs back to the theater and arrives on stage bloody and injured. When he struggles to play "Caravan" due to his injuries, Fletcher halts the performance to tell Andrew he is "done". Enraged, Andrew attacks Fletcher in front of the audience and is dismissed from Shaffer Conservatory.
At his father's request, Andrew meets a lawyer representing the parents of Sean Casey, a former student of Fletcher's. Contrary to Fletcher's previous claim that Sean had died in a car accident, the lawyer explains that Sean committed suicide, having suffered anxiety and depression during and after his time as Fletcher's student. Sean's parents want to prevent Fletcher from teaching again. Andrew agrees to testify on the condition of anonymity and Fletcher is fired.
Months later, Andrew has abandoned drumming and is working in a restaurant while applying to different colleges. He discovers Fletcher performing at a jazz club. After the performance, Fletcher invites Andrew to drink with him. He explains that he pushed his students beyond the expected so that they might achieve success and become like Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker. Andrew accepts Fletcher's invitation to replace the current drummer in his new band at the upcoming JVC Jazz Festival. He invites Nicole to the performance, but she is in a new relationship.
On stage, moments before the performance is about to start, Fletcher reveals that he knows Andrew testified against him and leads the band with a piece Andrew does not know. Andrew leaves the stage humiliated. After being consoled by his father, he returns to the drum kit, begins playing "Caravan" and cues the band. As the piece ends and the lights go down, Andrew continues his own solo. Fletcher is taken aback but begins to guide Andrew. As the solo ends they share a smile and Fletcher cues the finale.
While attending Princeton High School, writer/director Damien Chazelle was in a "very competitive" jazz band and drew on the experience of "just dread" that he felt in those years. He based the conductor, Terence Fletcher, on his former band instructor (who died in 2003) but "pushed it further", adding in bits of Buddy Rich and other band leaders known for their harsh treatment. Chazelle would later admit to writing the film "initially in frustration", while trying to get his musical film La La Land off the ground.
In order to secure financing for the feature, Right of Way Films and Blumhouse Productions helped Chazelle turn 15 pages of his original screenplay into a short film starring Johnny Simmons as Neiman and J. K. Simmons as Fletcher. The 18-minute short film received much acclaim after debuting at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, winning the short film Jury Award for fiction, which ultimately attracted investors to sign on and produce the complete version of the script. The feature-length film was financed for $3.3 million by Bold Films.
In August 2013, Miles Teller signed on to star in the role originated by Johnny Simmons; J. K. Simmons remained attached to his original role. Principal photography began the following month, with filming taking place throughout Los Angeles, including the Hotel Barclay, Palace Theater, and the Orpheum Theatre.
Early on Chazelle gave J. K. Simmons direction that "I want you to take it past what you think the normal limit would be," telling him: "I don't want to see a human being on-screen anymore. I want to see a monster, a gargoyle, an animal." Many of the band members in the movie were real musicians or music students, and Chazelle tried to capture their expressions of fear and anxiety when they were pressed by Simmons. Chazelle noted that in between takes, Simmons was "as sweet as can be," which the director credits for keeping "the shoot from being nightmarish."
The film was shot in 19 days, with a schedule of 14 hours of filming per day. Chazelle was involved in a serious car accident in the third week of shooting and was hospitalized with a diagnosis of possible concussion, but he returned to filming the next day to finish the film on time. The film was shot mostly in Los Angeles, with a few exterior shots filmed in New York City to create the setting.
The soundtrack album was released on October 7, 2014, via Varèse Sarabande label. The soundtrack consists of 24 tracks divided in three different parts: original jazz pieces written for the film, original underscore parts written for the film, and classic jazz standards written by Stan Getz, Duke Ellington, and other musicians.
Whiplash grossed $13.1 million in the U.S. and Canada and $35.9 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $49 million against a budget of $3.3 million.
In North America, the film opened in a limited release on October 10, 2014, in six theaters, grossing $135,388 ($22,565 per theater) and finishing 34th at the box office.
Whiplash received critical acclaim, with Simmons' performance receiving universal praise. The film has a score of 94% on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 262 reviews, with a rating average of 8.6/10. The site's critics consensus states, "Intense, inspiring, and well-acted, Whiplash is a brilliant sophomore effort from director Damien Chazelle and a riveting vehicle for stars J. K. Simmons and Miles Teller." On Metacritic, another review aggregator, the film has a score of 88 out of 100, based on 49 critics.
J. K. Simmons received wide praise for his performance, and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Peter Debruge, in his review for Variety, said that the film "demolishes the cliches of the musical-prodigy genre, investing the traditionally polite stages and rehearsal studios of a topnotch conservatory with all the psychological intensity of a battlefield or sports arena." Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter praised the performances of Teller and Simmons, writing: "Teller, who greatly impressed in last year's Sundance entry The Spectacular Now, does so again in a performance that is more often simmering than volatile ... Simmons has the great good fortune for a character actor to have here found a co-lead part he can really run with, which is what he excitingly does with a man who is profane, way out of bounds and, like many a good villain, utterly compelling." Whiplash also won the 87th Academy Award for Best Sound Mixing and the 87th Academy Award for Best Film Editing.
Amber Wilkinson from The Daily Telegraph praised the direction and editing, writing: "Chazelle's film has a sharp and gripping rhythm, with shots, beautifully edited by Tom Cross... often cutting to the crash of Andrew's drums." James Rocchi of Indiewire gave a positive review and said, "Whiplash is ... full of bravado and swagger, uncompromising where it needs to be, informed by great performances and patient with both its characters and the things that matter to them." Henry Barnes from The Guardian gave the film a positive review, calling it a rare film "about music that professes its love for the music and its characters equally."
Forrest Wickman of Slate accused the film of distorting jazz history and promoting a misleading idea of genius. In The New Yorker, Richard Brody argued that "Whiplash honors neither jazz nor cinema".
The film received the top audience and grand jury awards in the U.S. dramatic competition at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival; Chazelle's short film of the same name took home the jury award in the U.S. fiction category one year prior. The film also took the grand prize and the audience award for favorite film at the 40th Deauville American Film Festival. Whiplash was originally planned to compete for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, but on January 6, 2015, it was announced that the film would be competing in the Adapted Screenplay category. At the 87th Academy Awards, J. K. Simmons received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, Tom Cross won the Academy Award for Best Film Editing and Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley won the Academy Award for Best Sound Mixing. In December 2015, the score received a Grammy nomination, and the film was nominated for the NME Award for Best Film.