One of the tragedies of the human condition is that perfection requires the type of myopic drive, focus and, frankly, selfishness that make great work but maybe not great people. The type of arrogance and brilliance to even attempt curing cancer or reversing global warming often means shrugging off other basic human necessities like companionship and love, even happiness. The same is very much true of art. The community of the great is so small that the rest of us can’t understand it other than to recognize that greatness in one area can lower the chances of greatness in others. But does the work justify the pain the creator caused him or herself and those around them? Does it justify having it be the only thing you lived your life for?
That’s the question of Whiplash (2014), a broodingly intense movie about a jazz percussion student and his harrowingly overbearing teacher. The choice to make the art in question be jazz in the 21stcentury is an especially good one (though there is some question about how realistic or well it portrays the music) because unlike curing cancer or saving the earth or even pop music, the successful jazz musician has to push himself to greatness largely for his own reasons, knowing that fame and fortune would be conditional. Yet, every year, jazz or classical musicians, opera singers and artists put forth their attempt to have their name written alongside the greats.
Andrew (Miles Teller) is one of these people, a freshman at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music, the finest school in New York. He idolizes Buddy Rich and wants to grab the attention of Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the tyrannical conductor of the school’s premiere ensemble. Careful what you wish for. Fletcher is a hurricane of the most cruel type, manipulative (he brings Andrew into his ensemble to put a fire under the current drummer and does the same to Andrew when he earns the chair), abusive (no personal detail, including Andrew’s mother’s abandoning their family, is off-limits in his barrage of verbal assaults) and violent (he strikes Andrew when the tempo isn’t right). The Machiavellian blitzes of mental anguish that he spits upon the students come in every variety, ensuring that each member of the band is on edge at all times while demanding relaxed and easy playing. He shows favoritism, orchestrates situations for humiliation and degrades everything about his students. And yet, his bands win competitions and his students want to gain his respect more than anything else in the world.
Andrew begins a relationship with a pretty theater employee (Melissa Benoist) but calls it off so he can practice then he plays his hands raw. A lot of Whiplash’s intensity comes from sudden bursts of rapid close-ups of music, instruments, Fletcher’s scowling eyes and, often, blood on instruments. Credit Simmons’ mountain of a performance for making us buy that the students would remain under such abuse, that Fletcher’s respect and the place that he would push them to is worth it all. Teller also holds his ground with him, attempting to separate the lessons from the barbs. He desperately tries to hold onto his love of music while Fletcher does everything he can to squash it out of him. Persistent in all of this, are the questions of “why?” Who is this fun for? Where is the current or eventual joy in this? Andrew says he wants to be great but he doesn’t define that for himself; Fletcher almost appears to hate jazz. What is everyone striving for?
The movie suggests that Fletcher and Andrew are cut from the same cloth. “The most dangerous words in the English language are ‘good job,’” Fletcher says. Andrew doesn’t hide his disdain for his celebrated cousin, a football star at a D-III college, for patting himself on the back for success that Andrew considers conditional. This is what Andrew has to give and, regardless of recognition or respect, he will give it perfectly or die trying. There’s nobility there but there’s also real concern. Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser) watches his son relegate his own happiness to feed his ambition and offers his unending support while fearing for his son’s stability and even safety. All the while, Fletcher continues to push Andrew further and further, creating incrementally better music at the expense of an increasingly larger portion of Andrew’s peace of mind.
The movie operates like a pressure cooker and does a remarkable job of taking a subject that many are unfamiliar with (including myself) and making it riveting stuff. Much of the story of a student killing himself for his teacher’s respect has been done before, but director Damien Chazelle infuses the proceedings with an anxiety that is often hard to watch. There are a number of moments when the threat of public failure are so exhilaratingly intense that we are physically shaken to turn away. The pressure on stage must be unimaginable.
There are a few times when Fletcher pushes beyond the line of believability, and during his despotic rehearsals he cuts the band off to criticize them after a comically short amount of bars. But the effect is cumulative and we are put in Andrew’s shoes as he rides that foot pedal. We recognize Andrew’s quixotic thirst for perfection even if it robs the rest of him of nutrients. We are forced, like Andrew’s father, to look on in a sort of proud horror.