Review by Dawoud Kringle
Whiplash is a recent film starring Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons (directed by Damien Chazelle) that has generated some considerable controversy.
A no spoiler description. Andrew Neiman (Teller), a first-year jazz student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory is accepted into the studio band as the alternate for a core drummer by conductor Terence Fletcher (Simmons). Fletcher bullies his students with verbal and even physical abuse.
In one scene, after a traumatic experience at the hands of Fletcher’s cruel tutelage, and after arranging his dismissal from the conservatory, Neiman sees Fletcher performing at a club. Sharing a drink, Fletcher explains that he pushes his students beyond the expected so they might achieve greatness. The following dialogue is where Fletcher explains himself:
Fletcher: I don’t think people understood what it was I was doing at Shaffer. I wasn’t there to conduct. Any fucking moron can wave his arms and keep people in tempo. I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is… an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong. The next Charlie Parker. I told you about how Charlie Parker became Charlie Parker, right?
Neiman: Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head.
Fletcher: Exactly. Parker’s a young kid, pretty good on the sax. Gets up to play at a cutting session, and he fucks it up. And Jones nearly decapitates him for it. And he’s laughed off-stage. Cries himself to sleep that night, but the next morning, what does he do? He practices. And he practices and he practices with one goal in mind, never to be laughed at again. And a year later, he goes back to the Reno and he steps up on that stage, and plays the best motherfucking solo the world has ever heard. So imagine if Jones had just said: “Well, that’s okay, Charlie. That was all right. Good job. “And 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. But that’s just what the world wants now. People wonder why jazz is dying
Neiman: But is there a line? You know, maybe you go too far, and you discourage the next Charlie Parker from ever becoming Charlie Parker?
Fletcher: No, man, no. Because the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged.
His tirades and abuse has generated a new word in the vernacular of jazz musicians: the Whiplash Moment. Any time an older, skilled, and experienced musician dominates, humiliates, or abuses a younger, less experienced musician, we now call it a “Whiplash Moment.” This alone indicates that, if nothing else, the film achieves the coveted goal of insinuating itself into our culture.
I have mixed feelings about the film. Call me sentimental, but I enjoyed, and in some ways, identified with, the classic coming of age drama. The production, directing, cinematography, were all first rate. Teller and Simmons presented masterful acting; each made their characters believable. And the music was on point.
That said, the premise presents some points of disputation. The horrible music professor went way too far again and again. He was not a good teacher. Sure, sometimes a teacher has to kick some ass. In my years, I’ve occasionally gotten my ass kicked and I’ve done the kicking. But a teacher who tried to “do” and failed, and becomes a teacher can either be the best of teachers, or the student’s worst enemy. It depends on his ego and motives. Fletcher was an accomplished professor, who had this idea in his head about mentoring and developing his own “Bird.” But he went too far; and it’s obvious he was motivated by his own ego, and his own disgust at his own failures in life (real or imagined). His only recourse was cruelty and bullying in the guise of wanting to produce a virtuoso. He was so off center, he deliberately sabotaged his own performance at a prestigious festival.
And I wonder how real The Fletcher character is. The schools are full of teachers who, let’s be kind and say, take themselves a bit too seriously. But the extremes of Fletcher’s teaching methods would probably never survive long. And, as it turned out, it didn’t.
Neiman was struggling with his own insecurity. He was underdeveloped as a musician and as a human being. So, any mentor/teacher/guru/musical father figure (the bully professor was as threatening, domineering, and unpredictable as any father figure) would have a profound impact and influence on him. He was vulnerable at a very crucial point in his musicianship and life; and he barely survived what he experienced.
But (spoiler alert) they all lived happily ever after.
The film is indicative of how jazz is losing its lifeblood by being embalmed into classical forms. The “eager but insecure student/nasty teacher” relationship was played out over and over again: all genres have it. The drama plays out in conservatories all over the world, decade after decade, century after century. Neiman worshiped Buddy Rich and wanted to be him. But who would guide him into becoming himself as a drummer? How would he find his own voice? The setting the characters were in would never solve this. And in jazz if there is one thing that is of paramount importance above all else, it’s the individual voice, the individual story, and the transmutation of sound into real visceral experience.
How do you teach this? Perhaps it can’t be taught; only demonstrated, and perhaps inspired. Frankly, I’d like to see a film that expresses this. Whiplash had its chance. Now, it’s somebody else’s turn.