Whiplash: How Bad Do You Want It? (a Review) by Brad Windhauser
What elevates a person from being a really good writer, painter, or musician into being an Artist? The answer to this question thumps at the heart of the new film Whiplash. Exploring this quest through the lens of a budding jazz drummer, the film’s screenplay examines the different components of this pursuit (work ethic, talent, dedication, motivation, the personal sacrifices, the right teacher) and, appropriately, stops just short of presenting a firm answer. Instead, it poses an even more important—and equally difficult to answer—question: Is it worth the personal toll?
A college freshman, Andrew, is hoping to realize his dreams of becoming a professional jazz drummer. At a fictional, top-notch music conservatory (like Julliard) in Manhattan, he sets his sights on gaining the attention of Fletcher, the tough-as-nails professor everyone is scared of but everyone wants to impress. Under Fletcher’s eventual tutelage, Andrew makes jazz band, and in order to retain his position in this competition-level band, Andrew will be pushed (one could argue mauled) towards greatness. His intense dedication—rendered uncomfortably at times in the script—is shown through manic practice sessions, stressful rehearsals, and intense pressure to perform during competitions. So blinded by his passion, Andrew basically shrugs through a strained relationship with his family, his potential girlfriend, his health, and, at times, his emotional well-being.
The story’s strength comes from Andrew’s relationship with Fletcher, and the script does an excellent job rendering and building this relationship. From their initial meeting, where Fletcher walks into Andrew’s late-night practice session; to the Fletcher’s shadow by the door of band practice; to the barging-in on rehearsal, where Fletcher spot-checks various band members, criticizing their talents in short bursts; you can tell why students shrink in his presence. But the moment he judges Andrew worthy of Jazz band, based on a few bars of double-time, you understand that Andrew’s world is about to change.
You don’t however, harbor any impression that this change will be easy—or fun.
After a few jazz band rehearsal scenes, the tension and pressure has escalated, and the script will have you holding your breath when Fletcher calls out an out-of-tune player. Will the offender speak up? When the wrong one does, Fletcher dismisses him: if he didn’t know he was in-tune, he’s done. Any flaw shows you don’t have what it takes.
You’ll hate Fletcher, and the script invites that impression. But to complicate your impressions, the screenplay sprinkles in a few moments where Fletcher’s wall appears to lower. For example, when he takes the time to offer encouraging advice, usually, in the beginning, to Andrew, you can see a teacher trying to reach a student. But before you think he’s gone all soft, you get another scene that will make you despise him, questioning why any teacher would choose to push their students in this way (people often have the same low opinion of how Gordon Ramsey runs his kitchens). All of these scenes build to the anecdote that drives the movie: Fletcher’s imparts the Charlie Parker story. In a legendary moment during a recording session, a still-finding-his feet Parker had an instrument thrown at his head when he flubbed his part. This reaction served as the supposed catalyst that encouraged his eventual greatness, becoming the legend known the world over as Bird. Because of this story, you learn Fletcher’s motivation with students: the two most dangerous words in the English language are “good job.” Good enough is not great.
The film challenges the audience (and its characters) to consider how far they are willing to go to achieve greatness.
In the final scene, during a competition, we see what Andrew is made of and how willing he is (or could be) to push through his difficulties and become the musician his talent hints he might be able to. Will he do it? The music made on that stage will convince you.
But is it worth it?
One of the best parts of the screenplay is that it doesn’t tell you what to think about this question. But, if you’ve ever dreamed of being an artist of any craft, this tight script will ask you to think long and hard about how far you’re willing to go in order to reach your goal. The film doesn’t paint a pretty picture of what it takes—or even if this is the appropriate way to attain a mastery-level of proficiency. For this reason, if you have never played an instrument or undertaken an artistic pursuit seriously, this film might be lost on you—you’ll likely share the reaction Andrew’s father has throughout the film (one of confusion, grave concern). But, ultimately, that’s its point. Great art takes great sacrifices; the weak need not apply. Furthermore, we’ll never know if the artists who have been celebrated in our culture—and the masterpieces they created—could have been created through different means. Is it worth the chance to find out?