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August 30, 2021

[Note: This piece is more of a short essay than a review. As such, it contains spoilers about the movie.]

When looking at the movies I love, a common thread in them is that strong–maybe too-strong–characters really seem to do it for me. You know the ones–where you get the sense that if they dialed down their intensity from 11 down even to 10 their lives and the lives of others would be improved but they find themselves unable or unwilling to do so. You could call it a hero’s tragic flaw, but it’s not limited to heroes.

In Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, the most glaringly flawed character is who we might call the story’s villain: Terence Fletcher. And he’s also the biggest reason Whiplash might be one of my favorite movies.

Fletcher, man. The guy is superhuman. We meet him in the first scene, when he both appears suddenly and disappears just as quickly, both instants unseen. But in that brief introduction, we learn that in addition to this unnatural mystique, he’s single-minded, uncompromising, and a ball buster. As the movie progresses, we will come to see that he he also has no hesitation to intimidate, demean, or even sometimes physically strike his students. We eventually discover that Fletcher believes his methods are necessary to find, or build, greatness in his students.

Fletcher is like the authoritarian, perhaps borderline abusive father some of us may never have had but I suspect most of us can channel as an archetypal voice in our heads. In my opinion, whatever inner Fletcher people hear these days, the volume is actually turned down a little low for too many of us. Life is just so comfortable at 80% effort. Sometimes it’s easy to coast. I’m speaking for my own proclivities, but anyone with eyes can see that many people have the same mindset. A more demanding authority figure, even one in our own minds, pushing us to be just a little bit better would, in my view, lead to better people and, dare I say, a better society. And Fletcher, played by JK Simmons in an Oscar-winning role, confronts us with that. Maybe I’m alone here, but I find him both frightening and thrilling.

Andrew Neiman, played by Miles Teller, is also compelling as a student jazz drummer in Fletcher’s band. He’s young, talented, and is already developing some accompanying delusions of grandeur. If you’ve ever thought especially highly of yourself before proving it to the world, you’ll relate a little bit to Andrew. He practices until his fingers bleed. He breaks up with his girlfriend because one day, down the road, she might resent him for putting his drumming aspirations before her, so better just to end things now. In a fantastic dinner-with-family scene, he gets all high and mighty about his own trajectory towards greatness being superior to his cousin’s Division III football activities and other bourgeois distractions like, you know, friends and like living past age 34. In other words, Andrew is basically an insufferable prick. (But haven’t we all been there? No, just me?)

Now, I feel like I should say a little about a major component of the movie: jazz. Listen, I love jazz. Back when I was a music major in college, I made sure to sprinkle in some jazz piano lessons and jazz history classes. I saw the occasional live jazz show when I lived in New York. But here’s the thing. Jazz really is on its last legs. It peaked in the 40s and 50s, was still great in the 60s, declined in the 70s, and by the 80s most if it was either dumbed down on one side, or so sophisticated on the other that the average listener couldn’t appreciate it on the other. (@me if you must.) I’ve tried to get into contemporary jazz trends and styles, but it’s just too much work and not enough enjoyment. When I want to listen to jazz these days, I go back to the 50’s, give or take a decade. I’ve come to terms with it.

Point is, by focusing on Jazz in the 2010s, Whiplash is talking about a very insular musical community. Jazz musicians were never competing with Elvis or the Beatles in popularity, and these days, the best jazz musicians are neither particularly rich or famous at all. It’s a tremendously small pond to be a big fish in. So just how great are the greatest 19-year-old jazz drummers today, when the potential competition is at best producing hip-hop tracks instead, or more likely numbing themselves out with video games and porn? I know it’s a wildly unfair comparison, but it reminds me of, say, preparing the best pastries in cooking school (which in my case was the best in my state and probably had a talent pool about as large as the one for conservatory jazz drummers), as opposed to, say, winning a large trial against an opposing top-tier law firm full of talented lawyers bringing everything they have (which is not something I’ve done on that scale personally, by the way).

While we’re talking about aspects that make me doubt whether Whiplash is one of my favorite movies, I also want to spend some time discussing the ending. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like I’ve completely known what Chazelle was getting at here. The movie finishes with Andrew playing drums for Fletcher a final time in concert. Fletcher had asked him to show up for a big performance, talking up Andrew’s drive and skill. Right as the concert starts, Fletcher whispers that he knows Andrew spoke to the authorities about Fletcher’s ways and helped get him fired. The first song starts, and it’s one Andrew doesn’t know, and he looks foolish. Fletcher is clearly getting his revenge. Andrew angrily walks off the stage.

But a moment later, Andrew returns. We’re reminded of how Fletcher said that the next Charlie “Bird” Parker wouldn’t let anything discourage him, if he really were the next Bird. Andrew seems to remember that too, and marches back on stage to the drum set, determined to prove that he’s not not the next Bird, at least by that standard. Andrew then starts drumming on his own, out of the blue. He convinces the bass player to follow his lead, then the piano player, and then Fletcher himself.

We ask ourselves, would this hard-ass Fletcher really let Andrew take charge of this situation? Fletcher has proven himself absolutely ruthless in keeping control of his music and in cutting down any who oppose him. And I have to confess that this moment requires a little suspension of disbelief to get through, even at my most generous. That said, it does make a certain amount of sense if we take seriously Fletcher’s earlier comments about how what he always wanted was to have someone prove they wouldn’t be daunted by any obstacles on their way to greatness. Andrew’s return to the stage echoes the story of Bird coming back better than ever after being driven from his own stage after having a cymbal hurled at him–the movie’s oft-repeated story that proved how great Bird was. I choose to believe that Fletcher was so excited by the idea that someone might pass this mythical Bird test that he was seduced into going along with it.

By the end of the song, we see Andrew and Fletcher actually collaborating rather than working at cross purposes, culminating in what we are led to believe is a truly tremendous performance. (Let’s be honest–it’s not always easy in movies to tell how good the performance is supposed to be without the movie signaling to us what it wants us to think.)

The credits roll after this musical triumph. What is the victory about, though? Is this really about greatness? Well . . . it’s certainly about determination not to give up and resilience in the face of tremendous oppression. Those things admittedly matter. But there is something more that neither Fletcher nor Andrew seem to spend much time thinking about, though. And that is artistry. It would be one thing if this movie were about the Charlie Parker of, say, running the fastest 100 meters or designing a spreadsheet. Truth be told, there’s probably even a difference between run-of-the-mill sprinters and office workers and those with the soul of an artist. But how much more important then is artistry in music? Especially in freaking jazz, which is improvisatory to its very core?

When it comes down to it, I can’t think of anything this movie has to say about artistry, or even beauty. Is there something about being a great musician that can’t be taught? Or does it all come down to determination and practice? It’s not that Whiplash falls on one side of the question or the other so much as it seems not to have even thought about it.

So we’re left with a great movie with fabulously complex characters I can’t stop thinking about. And simultaneously with a movie that sidesteps a seemingly crucial question, and even does so in a slightly contrived way. Which is why I say it might be one of my favorite movies.

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