They reach to grab the best, and with outstretched arms, they have a tendency to knock over certain pieces they deem insignificant. I’ve had a coach scream that I was the fattest, laziest, most unsuited buffoon he’s ever seen, and that if my preparation for basketball was as involved as my mouth during dinner, I would be in the NBA.
On the contrary, I’ve had a coach push me to the brink of my highest achievement, leading me to the best shape of my life.
This thin line between love and hate molds young athletes to become their very best, while at the same time, these students of life are functioning at their absolute worst. That push, that drive, that anguish clouding success, can also be found in many facets of what is considered great.
Whiplash, the bombastic debut of director Damien Chazelle, sheds light on the competitive world of jazz musicianship. Starring Miles Teller as Andrew Neiman, a first-year jazz student at a prestigious conservatory, and J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher, a famed conductor with a temper as sharp as his tempo, who happens upon Andrew’s talent and decides to take him under his wing.
But the honeymoon is short lived, as both Andrew and Terence are pushed to their respective limits, leading the audience on a wild ride of drums, jazz, and blood. And when the wound clots, all that’s left is a salacious bond between a rugged master and his driven apprentice.
The measure of a man is determined by the legacy he leaves behind. One that strives to be the best seeks out necessary acquaintance to ascend to the absolute. Andrew Neiman chokes on the fruit of his own labor: greedy with ambition, hungry for recognition, and starving to be the “next.”
His coach, Terence Fletcher, is the snake wrapped around said apple of dissidence, offering Andrew a bite at the bigs. But one cannot partake of the meal set forth without first giving thanks to the ones who sacrificed to provide such a spread.
Fletcher is a creature of history and habit, constantly reminiscing about the flavors of jazz music from a past time. He, as the gatekeeper for the initiated, sits at the head of the table, berating anyone who tries to eat before remembering those who went hungry.
But he sees something special in Andrew. Something he can’t put his finger on exactly. And through his own maniacal musical musings, he strives to bring Andrew closer to the table, fork in one hand, drumstick in the other.
In my opinion, the greatest movies always leave much to the imagination. Chazelle leads us down a path of discord and malcontent, disguising Fletcher as a wolf in sheep’s drag, baring his fangs whenever he deems it necessary to disrupt Andrew.
But what makes Whiplash such compelling commentary is that for every challenge Andrew faces, it elevates his skill as a musician. He becomes a better drummer. So who’s to say that the wolf is not without contrition?
Actually, scratch that.
Fletcher moves to the beat of his own distinction, knowing exactly what Andrew needs to become the best drummer alive. And isn’t that the reason why the young padawan decided to enroll at Shaffer Conservatory, to seek out the best master money could buy?
The last 20 minutes of Whiplash prove the theory that Fletcher’s bullshit was in fact the driving force behind Andrew’s rise to prominence. Fletcher wasn’t trying to ruin Andrew’s professional future. It was the wolf baring his fangs one last time to transform his protege from sheep to savior.
He understood Andrew’s potential from Day 1, and made the difficult choice to lead Andrew to the ledge of “good job”. In the words of the late, great Heath Ledger, “It wasn’t hard. See, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little push.”
What does it mean to be great? Where’s the line? At what cost? Chazell himself was once in the crosshairs of an intense music teacher, thus providing the inspiration for the character Terence Fletcher.
But without said teacher, who shed some light on Damien’s dark and deplorable future as a musician, would he himself make the conscious decision to abandon music and lead a life of reverence, Oscar nominations, and awe as a filmmaker? This conundrum parallels Andrew, whom, without the misguided guidance of Terence Fletcher, would have never become the drummer he was born to be.
“That’s why jazz is dying, because of cowards like you.”