Powerful Oscar-nominated performance by J.K. Simmons energizes “Whiplash”
There is a line between teaching and inspiration. Even the best learners cannot be truly taught, but merely directed. Sometimes it is the teacher’s job to point in the direction of the lesson and watch as students stumble and struggle towards enlightenment. The best lessons are self-taught and more is gained from those discoveries than any standardized test can measure.
The more I teach, the more convinced I am that learning is an exercise—it is practice and failure and practice and failure. The role of the teacher is to provide opportunities for that practice, offer correction, and measure successes.
“Whiplash,” a film from last January that has been re-released now as it gains accolades for the Oscar-worthy performance of J.K. Simmons, is a variation of the self-driven learning described above, but taken to the point of absurdity. No teacher could behave like Terrance Fletcher and remain employed for very long. His narrow view of his role is laughable and cringe-inducing.
But the film makes a strong point in other ways, namely that greatness is borne out of adversity. Even the most talented performers will not be remembered for natural ability and wishful thinking alone.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a jazz drummer pursuing his dream at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory. I always find it strange that America’s one distinct musical style, the kind that was birthed out of smoke and booze and poverty along the Mississippi River by improvisational musicians just trying to make a living, is now studied with the same breathless pretension as Shostakovich and Bach.
Jazz music is as far removed from its roots as it can be now, and the very act of studying it has changed the style and purpose so completely that any attempt at the preservation of its purity is unlikely to be successful. It is this attitude that seems to dominate the Shaffer Conservatory, which has several bands competing with other schools in jazz performance.
The top band is led by Terrance Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a man who is disarmingly personable—until he is in front of his orchestra. In rehearsals, he is a nightmare of masculine locker-room insults that he hurls as casually as the chairs he slings at terrified students. He demands absolute perfection and will decimate any member of his ensemble who dares play out of tune or off tempo.
He achieves his rule over the musicians by pitting them against each other—the smallest of mistakes and they are immediately removed from the group and demoted into the obscurity of lesser bands. The mental exhaustion of the members is evident, as is their fear. The film shows just how dangerous this approach can be.
The most interesting aspect of the film is Fletcher’s justification for his tactics. He explains how Charlie Parker would not have become who he was had a bandleader not thrown a cymbal at his head for making a mistake. He claims that Parker took that moment and used it as inspiration to be better, to practice more, and ensure that no one would laugh at him onstage again. Fletcher is determined to find another Charlie Parker by throwing as many cymbals as he can. Only by pushing his students beyond what they are capable of can he truly serve their needs.
This is asinine, of course, because most people aren’t Charlie Parker. Even the best of the best at the Shaffer Conservatory are not going to become one of the greats. A teacher has a responsibility to encourage rather than berate. Living is more than enough to break someone down without having a trusted advisor intentionally inflict massive amounts of mental anguish. Still, I can understand Fletcher’s desire to drive his students. But success is always internally achieved rather than externally forced.
“Whiplash” is a powerful character piece with a satisfying story arc and an excellent soundtrack. J.K. Simmons deserves his nomination; sinister and vengeful fit his onscreen persona well. The film itself is a bit too simple for its own nomination. Writer/director Damien Chazell based the film on his own experiences in a competitive jazz band, and as such the film is an exaggeration of the feelings of terror he associated with drawing the ire of a heated director. The performances in the film showcase this dread, making the conclusion more nail-biting than one might expect.
“Whiplash” is an unsung gem from last year that is a dark horse candidate for Oscar’s Best Picture.