Tonight I watched movie number four, of the eight nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. I had seen enough clips of this film to feel edgy about viewing the movie. I was thrilled that J.K. Simmons, a fine character actor, was nominated for best supporting actor. However, could I endure watching a film that depicts a man who bullies his students into giving their best…or breaks them in the process?
Whiplash stars Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, and Paul Reiser. It was directed by Damien Chazelle. This drama carries an R rating, for strong language, and has a run time of 1 hour and 47 minutes. It was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Writing, Screenplay, Best Picture, Best Sound Mixing, Best Film Editing and Best Supporting Actor for Simmons. It won in the last three categories.
Andrew (Teller) is a student at Shaffer Conservatory of Music, the finest school of music in the nation. His passion is to be a great jazz drummer like Buddy Rich. Being a first year student, he barely has the chance to prove himself to his jazz instructor, much less catch the attention of Terence Fletcher (Simmons), who has the best, most competitive jazz band in the school. Only the most talented play in Fletcher’s rehearsal room.
Andrew spends long hours practicing on his drums, avoiding social interactions and dating. His only consistent connection is meeting his father (Reiser) once a week at the movie theater to catch a film…and to flirt mildly with the pretty girl at the concession counter. He eventually asks the pretty girl out. But then he gets noticed by Fletcher, and Andrew’s world narrows down to intense drumming sessions, listening to great jazz drummers, and trying to earn Fletcher’s approval. Fletcher is more than a tough instructor and conductor. He is brutal in his treatment of his students, who stare silently at the floor whenever he enters the practice room, fearful of receiving his attention and his wrath. If too many mistakes are made, the offending band member is dismissed.
Andrew’s desire to be one of the greats overrides his dislike and fear of Fletcher. When Fletcher pushes him, he tries harder, practicing until his hands bleed. At last Fletcher makes him the core, or main, drummer, and Andrew heads to his first competition. Delays in transportation make Andrew late arriving at the performance center, where he discovers Fletcher has replaced him. When Andrew verbally fights for his right to play the drums during the competition, Fletcher allows it….except Andrew has left his drumsticks at the rental car facility. Rushing against the clock to make it back in time to take the stage, Andrew drives carelessly and is involved in a horrific car accident, just two blocks from his destination.
Undeterred, he stumbles to the center and onto the stage with moments to spare. Bleeding, injured, probably concussed, he begins the set, but falters, fumbles, drops a stick. Fletcher casts him out. It’s over. In pain and in a rage, Andrew attacks Fletcher physically before he is dragged away.
The once promising drummer loses his sense of purpose, his drive. He is dismissed from school for attacking Fletcher. He moves back home and packs away his drum set. Andrew is approached to testify, anonymously, against Fletcher after one of his former students commits suicide. Andrew agrees, thinking he will never see his old instructor, his tormentor, again. But fate would intervene. In a downtown club, Andrew watches Fletcher perform, with grace and passion, with a jazz ensemble. After the performance, before Andrew can get out of the building, Fletcher calls out to him and they have a drink together. Fletcher confesses he was fired. Andrew plays dumb. Fletcher tells his former student that he knows no one understands what he does. He pushes people beyond what they think they are capable of, to bring them into greatness. He says the two most horrible words in the English language are “Good job”. No great jazz player became who he was by doing a good job. He learned to move beyond his perceived limits. Andrew questions whether there is a line that gets crossed, where the pushing can instead discourage someone from becoming great. Fletcher counters that the great won’t get discouraged. He will keep going.
As the two part company, Fletcher invites Andrew to perform with a jazz band that he is conducting. The songs are the same ones he used at the conservatory. Important musical people will be in the audience, so it is an opportunity to get noticed. He needs a better drummer. Fear flashes across Andrew’s face, but that old desire for greatness arises as well. After a weekend of considering, and dragging his drums out again, Andrew shows up to perform. As the set begins, Fletcher turns to Andrew and says, quietly, “I know it was you.” And then calls up a song that Andrew doesn’t know and doesn’t have the music for. The band begins the musical number and Andrew fumbles, struggling to join in, throwing off the other band members. Fletcher has his revenge, humiliating Andrew in front of the crowd, in front of his father who showed up to watch his son. As the song at last comes to an end, Fletcher takes pleasure in sending Andrew away once again, telling him, “I guess you don’t have it.”
Andrew’s dad meets his stricken son backstage, urging him to come home. And then, something shifts in Andrew. Head held high, he returns to the stage and the drums, just as Fletcher is announcing the next musical piece. Andrew begins a drum solo. A startled Fletcher and the just as surprised band members look to Andrew in confusion. “I’ll cue you,” he instructs the band. They move into the piece Caravan, which features the drums, and which was always beyond Andrew’s ability to perform. That shift continues in Andrew….and suddenly, pushed up against his limits, taking himself to the edge, he does it. He breaks through. He gives an amazing performance that pulls every ounce of strength and talent from him. Hands bloody, soaked with sweat, exhausted, he smiles at his teacher. Fletcher acknowledges the young man’s accomplishment with a beautiful smile.
This was, indeed, a very difficult movie for me to watch, as the way I encourage others is so very different from the methods Fletcher uses to inspire greatness. I couldn’t bear for a child or grandchild of mine to be treated with such harshness, such spirit breaking meanness. Was it worth it, to Andrew, to be pushed so hard? Those who want to be good, who want to enjoy what they do, become casualties under such an assault on their hearts and souls, useless to a man like Fletcher who winnows out the good to preserve the very best. To one who wants to be great, who has that as the ultimate goal in life, the harshness might ultimately prove worthy, but at what cost to his soul?
The last ten minutes of this film were almost unbearable. I wanted to look away….I couldn’t. I was afraid Andrew’s heart would burst from his frenzied drumming…it didn’t. And then the break through….filmed so well that I knew the moment he did it, I saw the change come over him ….and I could not look away. Andrew’s brilliance exploded through his pain, sweat and blood. He was destined for greatness, and he knew it. For the first and only time during this movie, I smiled. I teared up. I said, “Wow” very softly. Would I ever watch this movie again? No. However, I might watch the last ten minutes again before I return the DVD. And ponder the breaking of limits.