Stay, thou art so beautiful: A review of, and rumination on, Whiplash

Whiplash

I was enrolled in a RISD drawing class last semester. The professor had told me that Brown students in his course usually dropped out by midway through the semester; he described it as a sort of drawing boot camp. I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember, and while I wouldn’t say I’m particularly talented, it’s peculiar how lost I can get in the work; hours might go by while I’m working on a few details, and I’d be none the wiser. I figured that I ought to take advantage of RISD being right down the hill, and signed up for this apparently brutal slog as a fifth class. I love drawing, after all.

I dropped the class in mid-October. I regret it. J.K. Simmons’ character in Whiplash, Terence Fletcher, would say that I just “don’t have it.”

The film follows 19 year-old Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) as he studies under Fletcher at Schaffer Music conservatory in New York City, the most prestigious music school in the country. Andrew wants to ascend to the heights of the all-time great jazz drummers, like Buddy Rich, and Fletcher’s ambition is to mold the next great jazz musician, a new Charlie Parker, by whatever means can forge such a talent. Fletcher takes Andrew under his tutelage, to the latter’s initial delight, but the consequences of Fletcher’s drive soon become apparent.

Put bluntly, Fletcher is a tyrant. He is the logical conclusion drawn from every teacher you’ve ever studied under that ruled the classroom by sheer terror, every coach that could think of nothing but the thirst for victory, every family member whose standards you know you can never meet. Each scene in the school studio, where he conducts the school band and prepares them for jazz competitions, is weighed down by a nearly unbearable tension, as each student knows that a single wrong note might incur Fletcher’s wrath and cause him to throw them out of the band. In Andrew’s first practice with the band, Fletcher hurls a chair at his head for not knowing whether he was too fast or too slow with his drumming, causing Andrew to break down crying.

Several times in the film, Fletcher references a story about a 16 year-old Charlie Parker, who had a cymbal thrown at him by drummer Jo Jones for making a mistake during a performance, which led to Parker being laughed off stage; he would spend nearly all of his time polishing and honing his saxophone technique, and return to become one of the greatest jazz musicians in history. Fletcher says that if Jones had simply allowed Parker’s mistake to pass, and not humiliated him, the world might have been deprived of Charlie Parker’s greatness as he wouldn’t have had nearly the same incentive to improve. Fletcher declares that “there are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job,'” and that he will never apologize for doing what is necessary to bring the world a great musical talent. Fletcher admits that he hadn’t yet molded a new Charlie Parker, but this has not encouraged him to temper his furious screams or cutting insults towards students who can’t reach his watermark. The most remarkable thing about his character is that none of his malice is malice for its own sake. When he plays or listens to music, or when the band is hitting all the right notes, Fletcher’s genuine love for jazz is apparent, and he is fully committed to the art form. Fletcher does everything for the sake of the students he is pushing beyond their boundaries and the music that defines his whole life. His character is explosive and hateful, but he could never be called insincere. J.K. Simmons is masterful in crafting the sense of looming menace that accompanies Fletcher’s every appearance.

While Fletcher’s ruthlessness is never lost on the audience, Andrew is not an innocent character by any means. He is the one who continues to rise to Fletcher’s challenges, and he’s quite adamant that his goal is to become a world-class musician. Andrew wants people to know his name the way they know Charlie Parker’s. As the film progresses and Andrew becomes more entranced by his drumming, he clashes with the few close contacts he has and openly admits at one point that he doesn’t see the point of having friends since he’s focused on his music, alienating his family and ending his nascent relationship with his girlfriend, Nicole (Melissa Benoist). Indeed, Andrew is frighteningly similar to Fletcher in terms of his goals and how much he is willing to sacrifice for music, and one of the film’s more gripping elements is how Andrew’s relationship with his father slowly diminishes as Fletcher takes over as the dominant mentoring influence in Andrew’s life. Andrew was not ensnared by a trick or cajoled by a lie; he made Fletcher his personal Mephistopheles with full knowledge of what kind of person Fletcher is. Andrew cares about achieving renown through music more than anything else in his life and he’d rather die young than live long if it means that the world will know his name. Miles Teller gives a gripping performance as Andrew, adeptly portraying his slide into obsession as the story progresses.

The central question of Whiplash is, quite obviously, what price is too high to pay for greatness? Fletcher maintains that he must be pitiless to produce a historic talent, but what of all the students he breaks along the way? Surely not everyone can or must be Charlie Parker. Fletcher says that a truly gifted musician would never be discouraged enough by him to quit, but it’s not at all clear that he’s correct. Not everyone responds well to extreme trials and constant belittlement. Perhaps Fletcher had greatness in his hands several times but failed to cultivate it properly.

Similarly, Andrew’s point of view asks us to consider how far we’re willing to go to satisfy someone. To please Fletcher is to be a great musician, and Andrew throws his entire being into the cause, drumming until it consumes his whole life. Even if he mollifies Fletcher once (and he does succeed occasionally), Andrew still has no time to ease up. A single mistake could cost him his spot in the band, regardless of how well he has performed in the past. Andrew is a latter-day Dr. Faust, always striving for future greatness because he knows that if he stops to appreciate his accomplishments, Fletcher will cut him out of the band, depriving him of his heart and soul: music.

Whiplash is beautiful to watch and, of course, to listen to. The shots of Andrew as he plays the drums are often mesmerizing, even as they depict the drum kit being splattered with blood and sweat as Andrew struggles to keep up with Fletcher’s demands. The scenes of Andrew practicing by himself were particularly engaging, with the frenetic energy and desperation of Andrew’s attempts to get the music just right clearly conveyed through the camera. The soundtrack is fantastic, as one would expect from a movie about jazz, and would be worth listening to even if nothing else in the movie was worth a damn.

Andrew’s willingness to sacrifice his health and livelihood, combined with Fletcher’s absolute belief in the correctness of his methods, lead to a captivating tale that always seems a half step away from ending in disaster. Andrew chases fame and acclaim, but for all the screen time he spends drumming, he hardly ever looks happy. More often, he is exhausted, bloody, and delirious. If one devotes one’s whole life to something, is that subject still a joy to pursue? If Andrew becomes a famous musician, and the world knows his name, will music be anything more than a nervous compulsion, emptied of joy, by the time he’s reached his zenith? But the allure of mastery is overpowering. I knew I didn’t have the time, but I wanted to take that drawing course anyway. I thought it was worth the trouble it would cause me, but I didn’t have the guts to persevere.

Charlie Parker died at age 34. I’m sure you’ve heard of him.

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