Bearing the Whiplash
By Rainey Wetnight
“I’m a vulgar man, but I assure you, my music is not.” -Tom Hulce as Mozart, from the 1984 film Amadeus
“…That he may sift you as wheat.” -Luke 22:31, King James Bible
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences sure did. Not only was Whiplash nominated for Best Picture, but J.K. Simmons also won the Oscar for Actor in a Supporting Role. Yours truly contends that Simmons was the lead, although intense Miles Teller portrayed our drum-thrashing protagonist. Who was in control of the entire hour and forty-seven minutes we spent inside their world of musical refinement?
Young Andrew Neyman (Teller) seeks one goal: greatness. His area of expertise - nay, the center of his life - is jazz drumming. Posters of Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker adorn his spartan dorm room, which has barely enough space for his bed and his drum kit. That’s all he needs: to eat, sleep (which he finds increasingly hard to do) and play. Practicing, at first a chore that he endures in good spirits, soon becomes a painful and bloody obsession. Once he is chosen, Neyman is already past the point of no return.
The chooser is none other than Terence Fletcher (Simmons), head of the top jazz orchestra at New York’s fictional Shaffer Conservatory. Not only does he never suffer fools, but he ejects musicians that he suspects to be fools from his band. Consider the case of one stocky student: “There’s no [expletive] Mars Bar down there,” Fletcher snaps, accusing a floor-gazing trombone player of being out of tune. As it is, the guilty party is sitting nearby, but the band’s high priest opts to send his fleshier scapegoat away.
The man sneers. He swears. He rants and raves. He hurls a chair at Neyman. He comes up with the most innovative invective since Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket (to which this movie’s been compared). What’s all this supposed to accomplish? Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the exact same aim the military has: to mold boys into men who can perform one task to perfection. There is no margin of error in war; it’s either kill or be killed. Neither is there a margin of error in Fletcher’s orchestra. It must conquer in competitions or lose favor in the ears of discriminating judges. Therefore, the teacher becomes the drill instructor. All should go well for our rising star if he yields to the breaking of his body, mind, and spirit.
The thing is, aren’t those three aspects of humanity the ones you must use to be a superb drummer?
Fletcher believes that the way to turn neophyte “squeakers” into virtuosos is through a combination of grueling ordeals. He uses enough profanity, racial and ethnic slurs, homophobic taunts, and misogynistic comparisons to fill up at least four episodes of South Park. One might argue that any athletic coach would do the same. However, that’s not whom Neyman is expecting at the front of the band room on his first day. Not only that, but Fletcher makes them toil over their instruments for far longer than the allotted class time. One particular scene drives this point home, starring three different drummers and their hot-headed hortator. Originally, that was the title of the man who beat time for slave rowers on Roman triremes.
Is this comparison too grim? I’ll return to it later. For now, I’d like to address the delicate issue of balance.
If there was anything the movie Black Swan taught us, it’s that art should not consume one’s whole life. In the beginning of Whiplash, Neyman clearly understands this. He strives to be a normal college kid in the midst of abnormal circumstances. He attends the movies faithfully with his dad (Paul Reiser), chows down on unhealthy food, and even finds a winsome girlfriend, Nicole (Melissa Benoist). However, as Fletcher and the band consume more of his time, he discovers that he has to drop activities and people that he once considered essential. An ambition such as his leaves room for nothing else, no matter what the authors of best-selling business books say. When he breaks up with Nicole, it’s a mercy; when he does the same to his father, he’s being cruel and not kind. What drives his ruthlessness? It isn’t just his teacher, or his love for jazz. It’s his consummate fear of being an unrecognized failure. Balance is for people who can put their passions into perspective. Our hero won’t, and eventually finds that he can’t.
Who is to blame, if blame should be assigned? Perhaps the answer lies with one more character, who never shows his face: Brandon Casey, a former student who had been in Neyman’s shoes (although on saxophone, not drums). Fletcher sheds tears upon the news of Casey’s death, but for whom is he weeping, and why? The film is ambiguous on this point, for good reason. It’s one more turn of the screw, one more lash of the whip upon his protégé’s back - and ours.
In the final scene, what is the meaning of Neyman’s thousand-yard stare? It shows triumph and tragedy in equal measure, the look of one who knows what perfect obedience is - a slave who has, at long last, pleased his master. Whether he has overcome his master is a question with which we all should wrestle.
RAINEY’S RATING: 4 STARS (A PERFECT SCORE)