Whiplash, one of the eight films nominated for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards, is undoubtedly the underdog of the category. While the crew is talented and features a slew of semi-recognizable names, there isn’t much star power associated with the picture. This is only the second full-length film for the director, Damien Chiseller, who recently turned 30. All of these facts make it an unlikely contender to actually win the top prize, but I believe that it deserves to take home the most coveted award in the film industry.
The film focuses on the relationship between student and teacher: Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a 19-year-old freshman at the fictional, Julliard-esq, Schaffer Conservatory of Music in New York City, and Terrance Fletcher (JK Simmons), the leader of the school’s most prestigious jazz band. Andrew’s acceptance to the school makes it clear that he is talented, but his skills just don’t seem to be quite there yet. Fletcher discovers Andrew practicing his double time swing and decides that he has potential. Joining the band as an alternate, Andrew is able to observe Fletcher’s teaching techniques, watching as he torments a pudgy band member for being out of tune.
Fletcher later explains his methods by telling a story about how the legendary jazz musician, Charlie “The Bird” Parker, didn’t became great until after Joe Jones threw a cymbal at his head, nearly decapitating him after he screwed up his solo. Rather than being beaten down by the humiliation, Charlie goes home and practices. A year later he gets back on stage and plays what Fletcher describes as “the best motherfucking solo the world has ever heard… if Jones had just said, ‘Well, that’s okay Charlie. That was alright. Good job.’ Then Charlie thinks to himself, ‘Well, shit. I did do a pretty good job.’ End of story, no Bird. That, to me, is an absolute tragedy.” If fletcher is on the lookout for the next Charlie Parker that would make him Jones, going on to say, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’”
Since first seeing the film in October, I’ve become a bit obsessed with promoting the film to anyone who will listen: from friends to strangers I catch staring at the advertisements on public transportation. My deep personal connection to the film practically convinced me that I’d actually had some part in making it. When I would convince and accompany people to the theater, I’d feel proud at the end when they told me how much they inevitably enjoyed it. I would literally sit back and think, ‘Wow, I’m so glad you liked my movie.’
It might seem a bit odd that a 20-year-old fashion student would so intensely associate with a film that centers on drumming. However, this is really a story of extreme perseverance and determination. It will resonate with anyone who feels dedicated to a craft, whether that is music, athletics, or in my case, fashion.
It’s clear that Andrew’s determination to master the drums is so singular and direct that nothing else matters in his life. At first this seems to be a good thing as it leads to endless practicing, trying to better himself and prove his worthiness to Fletcher. But as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that this all-consuming devotion might be doing more harm than good. Andrew, who was not the friendliest guy to begin with, starts to withdraw from his (admittedly already small) circle of loved ones. Whenever he’s not on his drum set, or listening to “one of the greats” on his CD-player as he taps along to the beat, he just looks blank. When he is not drumming he is as empty as an addict without a fix. He no longer enjoys simple pleasures like spending time with family and friends. When Andrew brutally dumps his girlfriend, it’s because he thinks she is holding him back from his impending greatness.
Ok, I’ve never broken up with anyone over my passion for fashion, but I have certainly bypassed many teenage experiences in favor of working/trying to improve myself. The simple act of ‘hanging out’ with friends drives me mad. To me idle time is wasted time. If I feel that a day has been lost and I’ve done nothing to advance my fashion ambitions, I get stressed out. While I’m sure all of that can be analyzed as some kind of personality disorder, it feels more like a side effect of wanting, and sometimes needing, to achieve my career goals.
Of course, people react differently under various circumstances and while some may flourish under the constant pressure, others, like Sean Cassidy, a former Fletcher student, struggle. We learn Sean hung himself a few years out of Fletcher’s classroom. Because of this, the film can be extremely hard to watch at times. It may even bring up repressed memories of your own Fletcher… whether your version was a coach, a parent, or in extreme cases, your own voice. One particular promotional poster is an apt metaphor for the potential damage or success these intense methods bring. The advert, featuring Miles Teller balancing on the edge of a drumstick, leave you wondering if he is perched on the edge of greatness… or the edge of psychological collapse.
The physicality involved in playing drums is something I’d never thought of before. His intense training brings blistering and bleeding hands, and sweat-soaked shirts. Even as he alienates those around him and turns into a full-fledged jackass, he still gets audiences to feel for him. When he gets turned-down by the very girl he so harshly rejected months before, it’s hard not to feel bad for him. When he gets humiliated on one of the world’s most prestigious stages, he runs into the arms of his father, the only one who cares enough to come on his big night. You almost wish you were there to give him a hug and tell him that it’d all be okay.
As you near the end of the film, the goal becomes hazy. Fletcher gets fired. Andrew gives up the drums. Without Fletcher’s traumatizing (but effective) methods, Andrew begins slipping towards mediocrity. Fletcher is reduced to small-time conducting and gigs at local bars. Although they would never admit it, they needed each other as incentive. Fletcher, the metaphoric Joe Jones of the story, thought he had found his own Charlie Parker in Andrew. Though things did not go as Fletcher initially intended, they both got what they wanted in the end.
As Teller appears in the final scene (on stage at Carnegie Hall with Fletcher conducting), something within him visibly sparks. This transfixing performance comes as a direct result of being pushed to his limits by Fletcher. Andrew’s magnificent crescendo is partially driven by a desire for personal revenge against his tormentor, but more than that, he is finally able to recognize his own capacity for greatness.
Whiplash offers a new way to approach life. Unlike any film before, it accurately represents the feeling of being driven mad by your own passions. It reminds us that though times may get tough, our endurance will ultimately be rewarded.