Whiplash (2014) follows Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), a student at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory. Nieman is a skilled jazz drummer who wishes to become one of the greats, with particular admiration for Buddy Rich. Nieman’s relationship with his abusive instructor, Terrence Fletcher (J.K Simmons) provides the central conflict of the film and the film’s most interesting message.
Reception to the film has been mostly positive but I know some people view Fletcher’s behaviour as far-fetched, with actions ranging from verbal abuse to minor bouts of physical abuse. Personally, I never got sucked into those criticisms. The performances, the dialogue, the music etc. were all great. Yet what really captivated me and made me tune out the criticisms of Fletcher was the film’s central question of where dedication begins and obsession ends.
At one point in the film, Nieman breaks up with his girlfriend, telling her that drumming will only continue to take up more of his time and eventually lead to conflict between them.
In another scene, Fletcher explains to Andrew that the abuse they receive on their path to greatness wouldn’t discourage a true legend. In Fletcher’s eyes, giving someone unwarranted praise will only lead to them dropping their standards and depriving the world of true skill.
Fletcher uses the example of Charlie Parker, a jazz saxophonist. Early in his career, Parker joined a jam session at the Reno Club in Kansas City. After he loses the tune, drummer Jo Jones throws a cymbal at his head (according to the film, most other sources say Jones through a cymbal at Parker’s feet). The incident motivates Parker to keep practicing and hone his skills, becoming an influential and legendary figure. Fletcher then asks what would have happened if Jones simply told Parker that he did a good job. Would Parker have been as motivated to practice and improve? When you watch the scene with Nieman breaking up with his girlfriend, do you think he is being unreasonable or do you think it is right for him to sacrifice happiness to singlehandedly focus on the long-term goal of being a legendary jazz drummer? Throughout the film it is implied that Nieman’s path could lead him to a similar fate as Charlie Parker, dying broke and full of heroin at age 34. However, Nieman considers this a fulfilling life, he would rather “die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was.”
For some, this may seem like a delusional mindset. For others, it may be an uneasy truth. As much as I hated Fletcher I found myself agreeing with him at times, especially with his point about the words “good job” being the most harmful words in our vocabulary. The quote reminded me of my time as a teaching assistant, where a big part of what I did was trying to get students to verbally participate in class (answering questions, debating etc.) Out of fourty students, I had maybe ten that put any effort in. The rest didn’t show up or sat in class like mannequins time after time. Then when they received their marks, the lazy ones started a petition against me that they took to the professor. Due to that, we had to inflate their marks. What kind of lesson are we teaching students like this? We are telling them they did a “good job”. You’re perfect, no need to improve or work harder. The students were eighteen. What happens if they bring this lazy and entitled mindset into their thirties. If systems keep coddling them, how will they truly develop values like hard work and discipline?
I know I have personally struggled with discipline as well. I have periods where I slack with my writing, failing to do a blog post or write 500 words of my book. I have had a guitar since grade eight but I have been too lazy to practice and learn by myself, which is why I needed to fork out money for lessons. I have days where I waste far too much time scrolling mindlessly through Instagram or YouTube, and I often make excuses: I need a break anyway, I’ve been working hard. Yet I have to ask myself if that is true or if I am falling into the same trap my former students did.
Many of us want greatness, but we also want happiness and joy. Yet can we always have both. As I scrolled through the comments of the break up scene, I came across a post from “Super Saiyan Goku” that I had to steal from:
When I see a Scene like this it makes me think about some of the greats.
Michael Jackson (His entire childhood was compromised so that he could be the VERY BEST)
Jay Z (He had to marry another SUPERSTAR of equal ambition in order to have a relationship. He’s said how Beyonce almost left him for her own career when they were dating because at the time her career was more important to her than he was)
J.K. Rowling (after she got divorced she put everything into her work and writing FOR YEARS)
Albert Einstein (WAS a huge introvert)
Chris Gardner (who in real life actually abandoned his on for weeks on end while he pursued his “DREAM”) AND MANY MANY MORE. People may see this as harsh (and in fact it was) but sometimes in order to achieve something you must make sacrifices…