Monday, September 26, 2016

Whiplash: There is No Try

by Rob DiCristino
“I was there to push people beyond what's expected of them. I believe that's an absolute necessity.”

The internet is full of inspiring quotations about working hard and being great. Most are vague platitudes, hyperbolic bumper sticker phrases meant to sound profound without saying anything too complicated. They reinforce the idea that our True Callings are the things that come the most naturally and make us feel the best about ourselves. Learning is supposed to be fun, after all, and an even temper paired with some positive reinforcement leads to a healthy balance between work and life. John and Jane Normal would be the first to agree. They wouldn’t like the world that writer/director Damien Chazelle builds in Whiplash. They wouldn’t like characters who obsess over the smallest details of their work and bleed buckets in the pursuit of something greater. They wouldn’t like the kind of competition that rewards emotional manipulation bordering on psychological warfare. But that’s why they’ll never be great. That’s why they’ll never create anything lasting or inspirational. Whiplash is not for the Normals, but rather for those looking to break boundaries and build legacies. It’s torturous, abusive work with very few tangible rewards. For the select few looking to rise above Normal, however, it’s the only thing worth living for.
Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is a kid with a dream: be the best jazz drummer who ever was. He gets accepted to Shaffer, the country’s premier music conservatory, and starts his first year in earnest. It’s not long before Head Bald Guy in Charge Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) notices the natural talent grinding away in the JV squad and invites him to the top-tier Studio Band. This is Andrew’s opportunity to watch and learn from the best, to really show off his stuff. He stretches, preps his charts, and looks up with awe at his new musical messiah. But Fletcher isn’t here to be loved. Loving Fletcher won’t make Andrew a great drummer, at least not the way a folding chair to the head will. Fletcher’s cruel, abusive, and violent tutelage keeps Andrew and the others on their toes. He makes them play until they can’t feel their limbs and then berates them for their failures. A few of them switch their majors just to save their lives. But not Andrew. Andrew can take it, and he soon learns to give it back in kind. Unstoppable Force, meet Immovable Object.

It’s easy to look at Whiplash and see Fletcher as the enemy, as a corruptive force that strips Andrew of his self-confidence and destroys his life-long dream of percussive supremacy. He’s constantly luring the kid into a false sense of security and then using that weakness against him. He compares him to Buddy Rich one minute and dismisses him as an amateur the next. He calls his father (Paul Reiser) a failure and makes fun of his absentee mother. He sabotages his equipment and deliberately rallies the other band members against him. It can be difficult for an audience to understand why a person who’s dedicated his life to shaping and supporting young talents would be so barbaric to the best among them. But Fletcher doesn’t care whether or not anyone understands. It’s not about being liked by a bunch of Normals; it’s about the Art. He’s there to root out weakness and inspire perseverance. How will coddling and empty encouragement benefit a kid who already knows he’s good? This isn’t Nerf Mode. It’s not important that everyone gets a trophy and a pat on the back. This is about the next Charlie Parker, and the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged.
What’s more, Andrew knows it. The longer Whiplash goes on, the more he rails against the painfully unremarkable people in his life: his father is an unsuccessful writer who ended up a teacher. His girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) is an Undecided who drifts along without a compass. They both lack inspiration and purpose, and Andrew will never be sated by their love or approval. Consider the brilliant dinner scene with his family: he’s feeling pretty cocky at this point, having just been made a permanent core (or so he thinks). He dismisses his cousins’ accomplishments and belittles them for playing Division III football. They have friends and hobbies, sure. They’re popular and happy. They’ve reached peak Normal, so hooray for them. Andrew is a total asshole in this scene, but it signifies how much of his yet-unrealized potential is finally coming out. Maybe this is Fletcher’s evil influence, we think. Maybe this brutal taskmaster has corrupted another innocent. But this is who Andrew has always been, and Fletcher just happens to be the only one who shares his single-minded addiction to the craft. He’s not a teacher, a father figure, or a role model. He’s the competition.

Of course, Fletcher faces competition of his own. He’s heartbroken to learn that a former student has committed suicide after their time together brought on severe depression. His sadness is genuine, for sure, but what’s worse is the feeling that a potential Great One got discouraged enough to give up. He resolves to keep plugging away and pushes Andrew even harder, threatening him with an understudy and then booting him from the band for being late to a performance. Note that neither Andrew nor Fletcher ever acknowledges the car accident Andrew was in. Note that even after he testifies against him and gets him fired, Andrew never believes that Fletcher was in the wrong. “He didn’t do anything,” he insists. They are both firmly in service of a much greater purpose than this business the Normals trouble themselves with. Still, he sells his soul for petty revenge and pays the price with his kit. Fletcher hits the pro music circuit and the two eventually meet up to drown their respective sorrows in the jazz bar. This feels like a cathartic moment, one of atonement and reconciliation, but it isn’t. It’s merely setting the stage for the final showdown.
It’s here that Whiplash really comes together. The audience assumes that Andrew will pay back his debt to Fletcher and remember why he loves jazz in the first place. We assume that Fletcher will be kind and encouraging, learning from his previous mistakes and finally seeing the good in his young friend. But again, Whiplash doesn’t care about us. This is a grudge match. Fletcher reveals that he knows Andrew is the one who got him fired. His generous invitation to sit in on a pro gig was actually a giant middle finger and an opportunity to embarrass the kid in public. It’s Fletcher’s final test, but Andrew is ready for it. He steals away the band and the show by launching into John Wasson’s “Caravan” himself. Note that the film takes special care to track Fletcher’s conversion from bitter anger to wide-eyed realization. The shots get tighter, quicker, more visceral: this is the culmination of his entire career. He’s found his Charlie Parker, his Buddy Rich. Andrew is the one who never got discouraged. All that torture and heartache and doubt led to something beautiful that Normals like us won’t ever comprehend. Imagine if Fletcher had ended that first lesson with a “good job” and called it a night. Doesn’t this feel better?


  1. I really enjoy watching Whiplash but at the same time it's a movie I can't fully get behind due to how by the end it has seemingly validated Fletcher’s methods. To an extent I can understand not wanting to applaud or encourage mediocrity but I disagree with the notion that genius requires external pressure or that the stick is better motivation than the carrot.

    With musicians in particular, internal desire and pressure often seem to be a much bigger factor in their success than being pushed and motivated by someone else (to the point where so many of them become self-destructive). The more I think about it, the more Fletcher’s notion that you can push someone into greatness (provided they already possess some level of talent) starts to seem like the fantasy of someone who knows they'll never achieve that level and has decided that their next best hope is to take at least partial credit for someone else reaching that level instead.

    There are any number of brilliant musicians whose lives have been well documented and who achieved their level of success through means other than an abusive mentor hurling objects at their heads. Conversely, by all accounts the example of Charlie Parker getting the cymbal thrown at him that Fletcher (and to at least some extent Damien Chazelle) uses to justify his methods is drastically altered from what actually happened in order to fit the movie's narrative. It's hard to paint Fletcher's methods as a moral quandary when it's built around one inaccurate story.

    There's enough in this movie that I enjoy that I'm really looking forward to Chazelle's next movie La La Land. It may in fact be my most anticipated movie for the rest of the year since the notion of yearly Star Wars movies dulls excitement for Rogue One a bit. Whiplash to me though will always be a very flawed gem, and a movie that's not quite equal to the sum of its parts.

    1. I definitely understand that perspective. I think what I was trying to articulate here is that it's not about external pressure, but rather awakening (or at least meeting) the internal inspiration. Neimann isn't an innocent being tortured into being great. He's just as antagonistic toward Fletcher as Fletcher is toward him. It's about who loves the music more, who's a true believer. They're challenging each other and seeing who comes out on top.

    2. Andrew never truly challenges Fletcher though because he plays into what Fletcher wants throughout the movie and ultimately validates Fletcher's beliefs. There's no way for Andrew to come out on top as long as he plays Fletcher's game. The only way for Andrew to challenge Fletcher would have been to find success through means other than abuse. Had Andrew gone on to become great, either through finding a more supportive mentor or simply through his own determination and Fletcher was forced to watch without being able to take any of the credit, that would have been Andrew coming out on top.

    3. Just for the sake of clarity though I would like to reiterate that I like the movie and I really enjoy reading your interpretation of it. This is one of the rare movies that gave me an actual physical reaction to it in that my gut was clenching for the whole last scene. I've never felt so much built up tension release during a movie as I did watching this.

    4. No, I really appreciate your feedback and I think you've got a great take on the movie. I just think we disagree on the nature of the final scene.

  2. Nice words Rob, this films finale when I first saw it hit me like Unbreakable did, or the Sixth Sense, a beautiful moment when it happened, I love this film for that first time going in blind shock

  3. Great write up, Rob! I saw this during the last week of its theatrical run and had the theater to myself. I nearly got up and started dancing during that finale. It's one of my favorite endings to movie I've seen in a long time.

  4. I loved this movie, I can remember that incredible feeling I felt after watching it the first time. It just got me so fired up. It's a very inspirational movie, it makes me want to work harder and push myself to always be better. I think Fletcher's methods aren't for everybody, but for the right personality, I think it can unlock great things.

    Also, Miles Teller...what happened man? What a fall from grace his career has taken. I've seen a lot of the movies he's been in since Whiplash and I've either disliked or hated almost every one of them. He should really fire his agent...or is Miles Teller just not that good? Were we wrong about Miles Teller? Or did we ever actually think he was good?

  5. Another great piece Rob. As a once pretty good, but now very average drummer myself this movie resonated for me in so many ways.
    Not that I had anywhere near the dedication and stubborn, pigheaded drive of Neimann but I do understand what it is to crave the approval of your teachers and mentors when it comes to something you really care about. Neimann and Fletcher have this symbiotic relationship that is just incredible. They need each other to justify all their selfish, self centered behaviour in every other aspect of their lives.

    For me the ending is a revelation. The look of relief and satisfaction Miles Teller has in the final moments is victorious for him but what does it mean to us as a viewer? I think the brilliance in Whiplash is that it doesn't choose a side - There is undoubtedly reward in the pursuit of excellence; look at the incredible musical performance he lays down in that final scene! But that excellence comes with a cost, like those of Neimann's relationships with his family and girlfriend. The look on Neimann's face tells us that he either isn't aware of that cost, or that he doesn't care.

  6. Great article! This is easily one of my favorite movies of all time and was my favorite movie of 2014. I have seen some videos on YouTube that interpret this film as a dark story where Fletcher is a villain. I guess people can take what they want from it, but I think you hit it on the head. He merely wants his next Charlie Parker, and that road shouldn't be easy because it wouldn't be in real life.

    One of my favorite shots in the film is during the end finale at the end of his solo, we have a long pause. It shows the upper half of Fletcher's face, not quite revealing his big smile of satisfaction, but we can tell from the upper half of his face that he has given Andrew his whole hearted approval. No words are necessary. This movie is a masterpiece.