Written by Kayla Runquist, former SLAH editor/columnist
How far would you go to be the best? What does it mean to push yourself? Is there a line between hard work and obsession? The movie Whiplash brings these questions to the forefront, and, rather than telling us what we should think, it leaves the answer up to us.
Andrew Neiman is an ambitious jazz student at the best music conservatory in the country, “Shaffer” in New York City. Neiman’s chief ambition is “to be one of the greats”. It is clear that he is driven, dedicated to his craft, and extremely talented.
Enter teacher and conductor Terrence Fletcher, the conductor of the highest-level studio band at the school. He sees Andrew practicing, and eventually stomps into his Freshman class, swiftly auditions all of the members of the band, and chooses Andrew to come with him, placing him as the alternate drummer.
However, in the very first rehearsal, after seemingly being patient and kind, waiting for Andrew to get on-tempo, Fletcher suddenly loses his temper. He throws a chair at Andrew’s head, and shouts obscenities at him. He then gets in Andrews face and demands that he count in tempo. On every fourth beat, Fletcher smacks Andrew in the face, and asks, “Was I rushing or dragging?” Challenging Andrew to figure out whether he had been rushing or dragging on the tempo.
Instead of quitting, Andrew dedicates himself wholly to getting it right. He practices until his fingers bleed and keeps practicing. For a time, he gets in Fletcher’s good graces. However, no one stays in Fletcher’s good graces for long.
Through a series of events, Andrew wins the drum lead in a concert, but after rushing to be on time, he leaves his sticks in a car rental place, and has to speed back to get them. On his return, he gets into a car accident from which he walks away. He goes straight onto the stage and sits down at the drum set, his head dripping blood and his fingers torn.
He plays fitfully, and Fletcher stops the song mid-way, telling him that he is “Done.” Andrew, rage-filled, attacks Fletcher on stage, and is later expelled from the academy. Andrew testifies in a trial against Fletcher, and Fletcher gets fired. But several months later, after he runs into Fletcher at a Jazz Club, he goes to perform with Fletcher at a concert. Fletcher purposefully embarrasses him by not giving him the correct piece, but instead of leaving, Andrew starts a new song mid-way through Fletcher’s speech, and leads the entire orchestra without Fletcher, thus having the final say. Fletcher, after threatening to ‘end’ Andrew, soon gets carried away in the music, and begins conducting again. He smiles at Andrew and gives an approving nod. The movie ends.
What Whiplash asks us is: How far would you go to be the best? Any viewer would say that Andrew’s behavior was unhealthy, that Fletcher’s method of ‘teaching’ was wrong, and that Andrew should leave the orchestra rather than endure abuse. But, to a musician, to a man who wants to be one of ‘the best’… is it really so unendurable?
Fletcher tells Andrew a story of a now-famous drumming legend:
“What if Jo Jones never threw a cymbal at Charlie Parker‘s head?” If the men with the potential to be great are not pushed, will they ever end up being great? Fletcher asks how it is morally right for him to deprive the world of great artists, just so he can be soft?
“There are no words more dangerous in the English language than ‘Good Job’” Fletcher says.
To someone who is dedicated to their craft, whether it be musical, sports, business, or technically minded, the idea of being pushed beyond the limit holds some merit. Why does the athlete sweat, and hurt, and push through? Why does the musician work for hours on end? Why does the scientist stay in his lab overnight? The push.
Immediately in the film, we are led to hate Fletcher. We say Andrew is a victim, and that it is right that Fletcher should lose his job. But upon further reflection we ask; What if? What if there were no hard teachers? And where is the line? What is the difference between a motivational push and abuse? Coaches yell at football players. Violin teachers force their students to practice stanzas over and over again. Directors make performers repeat scenes until they get them ‘right’. So let us not be quick to judge Fletcher’s character.
When he speaks about his former student, a student who has since committed suicide, he cries, listening to a recording of the man, and saying what a ‘beautiful player’ he was. So it is clear that Fletcher does love his students, at least, some of them.
When Andrew asks Fletcher “What if you discourage the next Buddy Rich? What if they give up?” Fletcher says, “If they’re the next Buddy Rich, they won’t be discouraged.” Meaning, he doesn’t care anything about anyone unless they are the next Buddy Rich. Forget the kid who just loves to drum. Forget the student who has too much passion and not enough talent. Forget everyone: unless they’re the next Buddy Rich. And this is where the summary of Fletcher’s fault comes into play. He is not evil because he pushes his students harder than anyone else. Not, even, because he is stuck-up, and mean. It is because he views anyone who isn’t proficient at their craft as worthless. They are nothing.
Whiplash, while a fantastic movie that both keeps you on your seat the whole time and makes you think hard, is not a movie that could be recommended for young people. The amount of cursing is overwhelmingly prevalent. It asks tough questions, and that is good, but these questions and deep themes are overshadowed by the vulgarity.
I give Whiplash a 4 out of 5 for quality, because of the pristine acting, engaging story line, and crispness of the feature. But it receives a 1 out of 5 for family friendliness, even for teenagers, because it is vulgar and harsh, with sexual references alongside dirty language.
Photo from chrismcraeblog.wordpress.com