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.
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.
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.