“If you don’t have ability, you end up playing in a rock band.”
So says a poster in Andrew Neiman’s dorm room. The 19-year-old freshman at New York’s prestigious Shaffer Conservatory idolizes jazz drumming legends Buddy Rich and Jo Jones. He’s determined to follow in their footsteps, practicing so furiously, so continuously that his hands are often a bloody mess of ruptured blisters.
One such practice session attracts the attention of Terrence Fletcher, the formidable faculty member whose Darth Vader-like commitment to utter perfection for Shaffer’s jazz band has made him a legend … to be feared.
Soon Andrew’s battling two other drummers for the right to sit at the skins in upcoming competitions. But he struggles to know how to read Fletcher’s mercurial moods. One minute the master musician tells him, “Relax. Don’t worry about the notes, don’t worry about what the other guys are thinking. You’re here for a reason. … Have fun.” The next he spits, “You are a worthless, friendless, f-ggot piece of s—.”
Affirmation, Andrew learns painfully, is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to Fletcher’s emotionally, verbally and even physically abusive attempts to “help” his band’s musicians become the best that they can possibly be. As Whiplash (the title coming from a difficult jazz standard repeatedly played) careens through its stanzas, the question for the young jazz drummer quickly becomes whether he can survive Terrence Fletcher’s brutal tutelage long enough to reach his goals—and whether all that abuse is really worth it.
On the most basic level, both Andrew and Fletcher have an Olympic-level commitment to musical excellence. Andrew’s determination to be a great drummer nearly matches Fletcher’s relentless, unyielding perfectionism. In an abstract way, that commitment is a good thing. But the movie can be seen as a cautionary tale of sorts, chronicling what happens to both of them when that kind of commitment to perfection morphs into an unhealthy obsession.
The cost is high. Early on, Andrew scraps a new dating relationship with a young woman named Nicole, telling her that he’s so committed to drumming there’ll be no room for them. Indeed, there’s now no room in Andrew’s life for anyone. [Spoiler Warning] But eventually it seems that he begins to see the error of his ways in this area, trying to rekindle things with Nicole. Fletcher, for his part, is fired after one of his former students commits suicide.
For all that, the film still raises some interesting questions about what’s necessary to achieve the kind of musical excellence we’ll all still be talking about generations later. “Truth is, I don’t think people understood what I was doing at Shaffer,” Fletcher tells Andrew late in the film. “I was there to push people beyond what was expected of them.” Regarding society’s acceptance of mediocrity, Fletcher says, “That to me is an absolute tragedy. But that’s what the world wants.” He goes on to say that the two most damaging words in the English language are the too-easily uttered good job, because they can keep people from pushing themselves to become the best they can be.
Serving as both a foil and as an advocate for an entirely different kind of life is Andrew’s kind, gentle and engaged father, Jim. He wants the best for his son, but he doesn’t want Andrew to have to submit to the kind of abusive punishment Fletcher continually metes out. We learn that Jim’s wife left the young family many years before; but it’s obvious Jim has remained deeply committed to helping and loving his son, even as he tries to temper the young man’s expectations about life and success. From the sidelines, Fletcher repeatedly mocks the older man’s mundane existence, seeing it as a failure. But this father’s tender commitment to his son is shown to be a good and beautiful thing—never mind that Fletcher believes Jim’s brand of love amounts to corrosive coddling.
You could say that Andrew pursues drumming with something like religious fervor. And a lengthy drum solo at the end of the movie is so engrossing it begins to feel almost like an ecstatic expression of worship for him.
Fletcher repeatedly harasses band members with gay sexual slurs, frequently calling them “f-ggots.” In one case, he tells a male student to stop thinking about “your boyfriend’s d—,” using a sexual innuendo to communicate a musical instruction. He labels another drum player “Mr. Gay Pride,” and again unleashes a nasty sexual allusion (this one about manual stimulation) to make his rhythm-minded point. (And those aren’t the only verbal volleys that combine personal put-downs with sexual sleaze.) He tells a young woman that the only reason she’s first chair is because she’s hot. We see a couple kiss.
Andrew does indeed practice so hard and so long that his hands blister, break open and bleed. One scene involves him repeatedly trying to cover increasingly bigger wounds with Band-Aids. Another finds him soaking his bleeding hands in a clear container of ice water (which immediately clouds up with red). T-boned by another vehicle, Andrew climbs out of the wreckage, his face and hand covered with blood … then sprints several blocks to play in a competition. (He’s unable to finish when he drops a blood-covered drumstick.) Elsewhere, he falls painfully down a flight of stairs (onto his face).
When Fletcher tells him he’s done, Andrew attacks the teacher, triggering a brief melee. And Fletcher sometimes gets physically violent with his students, throwing chairs at them, kicking drums and, in one scene, repeatedly slapping Andrew’s face to try to teach him the rhythm of a song. A teary Fletcher tells the band he’s just learned that his best pupil ever was killed in a car accident. Later we learn he was lying; that the former student hanged himself, allegedly due to the depression and anxiety Fletcher’s methods pushed the young man into.
Fletcher can barely speak to his students without using the harshest of expletives. He even goes so far as using the outrageously offensive and derogatory c-word to address them at one point. And before the verbal abuse is over, we hear close to 100 f-words, two of which are combined with Jesus’ name, four or five paired with “mother,” and one or two used sexually. God’s name is abused about 10 times, three or four times with “d–n.” The s-word creeps in close to 20 times. A racial slur targets Jews; “f-ggot” is spit out several times, as are words like “c—s—er,” “d–k,” “pr–k” and “b–ch.” We hear “a–,” “h—,” “d–n” and “p—.”
Several scenes include wine and beer, both in family settings and at a jazz club.
I hinted at this earlier, but it really does deserve a bit more attention: Fletcher repeatedly takes deeply wounding personal shots at Andrew’s father, dismissing the earnest high school teacher as a loser, and mocking the fact that Andrew’s mother deserted her husband and child when Andrew was young. He doesn’t stop there, taunting and mocking all manner of people for being Jewish, Irish, gay, female, overweight, and utterly lacking (in his estimation) talent and drive. Related to his deeply misguided, manipulative, deceitful, and wholly narcissistic means and methods, Fletcher says of his desire to produce a jazz prodigy, “I never really had a Charlie Parker. But I tried. I actually f—ing tried, and I will never apologize for how I tried.”
Most of us have probably had someone—a teacher, a coach, a conductor—who pushed us harder than we’d ever pushed ourselves. At times it may have even seemed like that mentor’s “strategy for excellence” bordered on being abusive in some way. But in the end, perhaps we achieved something we never would have accomplished on our own.
First-time feature film director Damien Chazelle takes that experience and its corresponding question—what does it require to be the best we can be?—and blows it out maniacally and melodramatically in Whiplash. He imagines an instructor so dementedly committed to his perfectionist vision that there’s little abuse he won’t heap upon his students to get them to perform better.
In an interview with avclub.com, Chazelle described his instructions to J.K. Simmons (who plays Terrence Fletcher) in this way: “When your character screams, and you really go after someone, I want you to take it past what you think the normal limit would be. I want you to become nonhuman. I don’t want to see a human being onscreen anymore. I want to see a monster, a gargoyle, an animal.”
In a separate interview with The Wall Street Journal, he added, “I wanted him to be a great villain role and scare the s— out of you without ever using a gun or a knife. I wanted him to scare the s— out of you just by how he walks in the room, how he talks to you. And there are very few actors who can pull that off. He’s not playing a murderer or a terrorist. He’s playing a music teacher. That to me still makes me giddy.”
Simmons’ utterly, abusively over-the-top portrayal of a music mentor gone wild is a key reason Whiplash has been embraced as a critical darling, netting five Oscar nominations as well as racking up awards at various film festivals.
But it’s that same drastic depiction—filled with some of the harshest, most profane and demeaning personal attacks you don’t want to imagine—that ultimately undermines the serious, provocative questions Whiplash asks about pursuing excellence and how we all might be pushed toward it. Wherever the line is, we know that Fletcher is way, way over it.
And I can’t help but feeling the same way about the film itself.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews.