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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 one of the greats like Buddy Rich. Famed conductor Terence Fletcher discovers Andrew practicing in the music room late one night and eventually invites him into his studio band as the alternative for core drummer Carl Tanner. Fletcher is 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, swears and shouts at him, and berates him in front of the class.
At a jazz competition, Andrew accidentally 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 talented 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 girlfriend Nicole, believing she will hold him back.
Fletcher tearfully reveals in class that a talented former student of his, Sean Casey, has died in a car accident. The band rehearses "Caravan", but Ryan struggles with the tempo. Fletcher puts Andrew, Ryan and Carl through gruelling auditions until nearly 2:00 a.m. while the rest of the class waits outside. After kicking furniture and throwing instruments all over the room, Fletcher finally decides to give the position to Andrew, telling the alternates to "clean the blood off my drum set", and invites the band back to restart rehearsals.
On the way to the competition, Andrew's bus breaks down with a flat tire. He rents a car but arrives too late, with the additional realization that he has forgotten his drumsticks back at the car rental office. After a dressing-down by Fletcher, Andrew races back to the rental office to retrieve the drumsticks. As he speeds back, his car is broadsided by a semi-trailer. He crawls from the wreckage and arrives on stage, bloody and injured, but able to perform. When he struggles to play "Caravan" due to his injuries, Fletcher halts the band mid-performance to tell Andrew "you're done". Andrew angrily attacks Fletcher in front of the audience, and is subsequently dismissed from Shaffer Conservatory.
Andrew meets with a lawyer representing the parents of Sean Casey. The lawyer explains that Sean hanged himself, in contrast to Fletcher's lie about Sean having died in an automobile accident, having suffered anxiety and depression during his time as one of Fletcher's students. Sean's parents want to prevent Fletcher from ever teaching again and harassing other students the way their son was. Andrew reluctantly agrees to testify on the condition of anonymity, and Fletcher is later fired from Shaffer Conservatory.
Months later, Andrew has abandoned drumming and is working in a restaurant while applying to different colleges. While walking down the street one evening, he notices a jazz club with the exterior sign displaying the name Terrence Fletcher on it. Andrew enters the jazz club and sees Fletcher playing the piano on stage. After his performance, Fletcher asks Andrew to have a drink with him, explaining that he pushed his students the way he did, beyond what was expected of them, so that they might achieve greatness and become the next Louis Armstrong or Charlie Parker. He invites Andrew to replace his current drummer at the upcoming JVC Jazz Festival with his band. Andrew agrees, and later calls his ex-girlfriend Nicole inviting her to attend and possibly rekindle their relationship, but is dismayed to find out she is in a new relationship.
On stage at the jazz festival, moments before the performance is about to start, Fletcher reveals that he knew Andrew testified against him and was the cause of his dismissal. Fletcher leads the band with a new tune "Upswingin'" Andrew has never heard or rehearsed, and panickedly finds no sheet music for it in his folder. Unable to follow the cues without sheet music, Andrew struggles through the piece and leaves the stage, humiliated. As Fletcher addresses the audience, Andrew is consoled by his father and defiantly returns to the drum kit and starts playing the "Caravan" drum intro, cueing the band to follow his lead. While infuriated, Fletcher reluctantly follows along. As the piece ends and the lights go down, Andrew continues his own solo, unperturbed by Fletcher's reaction. Gradually, Fletcher begins to realise this is Andrew's moment of greatness. Andrew drums furiously with the assistance of Fletcher and completes the performance of his life. He and his former teacher share an unspoken smile, with Fletcher proud in the knowledge that Andrew symbolizes the 'Charlie Parker' he always desired.