Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014) tells the story of a driven young jazz drummer and a drill sergeant. O.K. That’s not quite true, but it could be. J.K. Simmons plays Terence Fletcher, a stern, demanding college jazz band director as if he came from Fort Bragg. Fletcher teaches at Schafer College, the fictional best conservatory in the country set somewhere in New York City near Juliard but not quite. The studio jazz band wins competitions. To be on the core team of that band is to be best of the best for college jazz band musicians. Fletcher could be a football coach or drill sergeant, but this movie is a pedagogic drama and set in a college.
We’ve seen many pedagogic dramas and comedies over the years focusing inspiring teachers who get the most out of their students. The film is a bit of an antidote to those films – a mean version of Dead Poets Society. Fletcher doesn’t so much inspire his students as haze them, thinking that through humiliation he will drive one of two of them to greatness. He is quite simply an awful man who is drifts beyond being strict and stern into something pointlessly sadistic. Simmons is very good in the role. We aren’t supposed to like him but fear him, and he looms over everyone. Even when he is being nice, we know that he is gathering information to use later when he is angry. Even when he’s not in the studio, we can almost hear him breathing.
Miles Teller plays Andrew, a drumming student from Long Island who has dreams of not only making a living in jazz, but joining a pantheon. He has swallowed whole Fletcher’s philosophy, and probably thinks all of the outrageous tantrums are meant to inspire him as if he had a special relationship with the instructor. The other members of the core group seem to have swallowed it to, which is why Fletcher can humiliate his students for years on end without fear that any of them will fight back or inform school officials. You see, we live in a society that gives participation medals and achievement awards and no longer live in one where public humiliation and shame are used effectively. And by golly, Fletcher is a hero for trying to get more out of his students than is expected.
The worst compliment a boss can give someone is “Good Job”, Fletcher says in a confession late in the movie. We then listen to a story about how Charlie Parker was once humiliated and used that experience to practice to become the greatest. We hear that story told four or five other times in the movie. Its really the only example of humiliation leading to greatness they have and no one in the picture notices that there are other great musicians out there that don’t have the same story. After losing his job, Fletcher notes that all he wanted to do was find the next Charlie Parker and he never found one. Years spent humiliating hundreds students with nothing to show for it? Good job, I hope it was worthwhile and they’ll give you a lifetime achievement award for sticking it out so long.
Ironically for a movie in which the two main characters openly disdain social mediocrity, Whiplash is a very average film. Most of it consists of Simmons barking an order and insulting students until they cry. After awhile, it is predictable. Fletcher shouts a command and it is either broken right away or will be in the next scene. He says “show up at 6:00am” and you know that someone will be late, or out of tune, or will have forgotten their sheet music. The sacrifices that Andrew makes grow in intensity, mentally and physically, but even at the moments of great triumph for him, by the second or third triumph, its obvious that he’ll be cast aside and back at square one by the next scene. He is almost physically broken during the film, and the blood he spills I guess is meant to show great sacrifice, but really, it made me think Andrew was an immature fool.
The same Parker story is told again and again. Certain other “jazz greats” are name checked, but no one ever thinks to examine their life stories. If as the movie asserts, there is a connection between pedagogy and humiliation, they could have looked for that second data point, at least so the audience did not have to listen to the same story. The movie is like that guy on my Facebook feed who keeps complaining about kids these days and their “achievement awards”, a complaint I have heard for 25 years. The movie needs to get over social mediocrity and move on. Great performance by Simmons, but the movie is more of a facebook post than something worth seeing.
*1/2 out of five.