What does it take to be great? Not just “OK,” or “really good,” but truly great. Whiplash, written and directed by Damien Chazelle, explores this concept through a 1st year student at Shaffer Conservatory -- the best music school in the country. The story follows Andrew, already a good jazz drummer, possibly even great. His father and girlfriend seem to think so, anyway. But in this movie, his father and girlfriend -- defined by a hum-drum life, and lack of direction, respectively -- represent the perspective of mediocrity. That sounds judgmental, but it is the reality of how the untrained, or dispassionate, view art and artists. To quote the Fargo miniseries, most people are OK with just a stack of pancakes and a V8; to them, one jazz drummer is no different from another.
Instead of relying on corny devices or dramatic choices between “doing what dad does” and “going for the gold,” the film pits Andrew against the raging pressure of possible greatness, personified by the school’s studio band leader, Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons. He is ruthless, and seemingly without morality. He screams, manipulates, and plays mind games with Andrew in an attempt to push him to his fullest potential. Fletcher steals so many scenes I forgot the movie wasn’t about him.
The drum position in the orchestra comes down to three drummers, each with a different personality: one takes it too seriously, one is always smiling and seeming to have fun, and then there’s Andrew, always out to be the best. These feelings are in every artist at different times. Music should be taken seriously, because that’s what it takes to master a craft. You should always try to do your best, otherwise why bother? And you should smile. It’s music, after all. It should be fun.
When Andrew wins the seat, the pressure increases ten-fold. Fletcher pits Andrew against the other two drummers, toying with giving Andrew’s seat away to one of them. This should resonate with all creatives, or anyone in a competitive field. It's easy to fear that you could lose your job at any moment, specifically to the next person that can do it better.
I will not say how Fletcher almost gets the best of Andrew, but it is underhanded and cruel, not only to Andrew, but to everyone else in the scene -- even those we can’t see.
My initial takeaway from the film was a negative one, because I questioned the film’s lesson: must a mentor be so brutal in order to inspire? If so, count me out. I want no part of it. But, it's true that the need to stand out in sea of other people doing the same thing is a brutal endeavor, with monstrous opposition. While I hated the idea that inspiration can only come through relentless tests of a person’s passion, it is true that resolve and tenacity can only be developed in such a way. Remember how at times I forgot the movie was about Andrew? It’s a brilliant stroke in the film that Fletcher becomes the center of our attention and aversion, stealing our attention away from Andrew’s goals and abilities. This is true in our own lives. The monster that stands in our way easily steals our focus, and we often forget why we do the things we do.
When I realized this I began to love the film. Whatever tests Fletcher came up with, Andrew persisted. He railed back. He stood up for himself with brash confidence, and then backed it up by practice and performance -- by toil, and his own blood. It wasn’t about Fletcher’s brutality, but Andrew's willful persistence against it. What does it take to be great? It takes never quitting. No matter what stands against you, no matter how worthless something or someone can make you feel, you must persist. If you want to be truly great at something, you have to look at the monster as it belittles you and tell it to fuck off, and then do it anyway. And do it with more heart than you think you have. It is the opposition that drives us forward.
Whiplash is a great film about what real passion looks like, and the pain it takes to be good in your own eyes while railing against monsters and mediocrity. After you see it ask yourself this question: Does Fletcher represent the world or does he represent a part of each of us? Then ask yourself another question: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?