So imagine Raging Bull at Juilliard, with Jake LaMotta bifurcated into a young drummer who will do anything to be one of the all-time greats (think Sugar Ray Robinson, er, Buddy Rich) and a vicious, domineering music instructor who will do anything to cultivate a new Sugar Ray Robinson, er, Charlie Parker.
And you have Whiplash, a brilliantly paced, brutal, fascinating, albeit slightly fantastic story of what it means both to be gifted and to repackage a gift into the strange shape of greatness.
Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller) comes from a very competitive family that has little respect for his dream to become a world-class drummer. His father (Paul Reiser) and he are close, but there is that strain of nonrecognition, that what are you doing with your life? that even the best of fathers can throw at sons for whom they have other aspirations. So when Nelson Fletcher (J. K. Simmons), the despotic instructor at a Juilliard-like music academy, happens upon Andrew drumming a lick like it’s the Second Coming of Gene Krupa, he throws the kid into his class—a descent into heaven and an ascent into hell—and Andrew is more than willing to suffer the bizarre encouragement of an abusive parent, because at least this “dad” gets his ambition.
Fletcher, you see, is obsessed with a story about the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. It seems that one night, a sixteen-year-old Parker got a chance to jam at the Reno Club in Kansas City. Sitting at drums was Count Basie’s own star drummer, Jo Jones. Well, Parker proved less than a stellar improviser, and Jones decided to show his disapproval—by hurling a cymbal at him.
Despite the humiliation (but not near decapitation, as Fletcher tells it; the cymbal was thrown at the kid’s feet, not his head), Parker came back stronger and more vibrant, and would go on to be one of the jazz immortals.
Fletcher uses this tale, exaggerated though it is, as his sole pedagogical model, and so proceeds to physically, emotionally, and psychologically torment his young musicians, calling them names that are now illegal to utter in thirty states, threatening them, tossing them out of his orchestra, only to invite them back to fight for the same spot again against rivals—all in the name of “inspiring” them to be better better better.
Andrew, although generally soft-spoken and somewhat sheepish, is an open target for Fletcher, because despite the kid’s awkwardness, there’s a beast beneath that little-boy pout that wants to come out and prey. The question is: will Andrew buckle under Fletcher’s regimen, or will this extreme motivational technique push the boy beyond what even he believes are the limits of his talents?
In one scene, Andrew practices with such relentless ferocity that sores open up on his hands, pouring blood onto his drum kit. He plunges his bloody, bandaged paw into a bucket of ice water, in a shot almost identical to the iconic scene in Raging Bull. Music may have charms to soothe the savage breast, but professional music savages even the charming best. (There are other movie echoes, as when Fletcher has reason to tell Andrew at the climax of the film, “I knew it was you.”)
How much room should a teacher be given in mining for perfection? Where should the legal line be drawn between the harsh, deeply personal discipline a master can exert on a student and sheer sadistic fun? Fletcher worships at the altar of revolutionary genius, and as with all revolutions, bodies are expendable and failure will not be tolerated. Is it wrong to push an adult student beyond his self-perceived limits if a teacher of special discernment knows, or at least intuits, that greatness will burst onto the world stage?
What if the master is wrong, and the brutal intensity of his regimen breaks his recruit? Should he be legally liable? In 1996’s Shine, a biopic of pianist David Helfgott, we watch as a young prodigy’s mind collapses in on itself just as he is about to emerge as a musician for the ages. That descent into madness is dramatized as the direct result of the relentless prodding of a tyrannical father, who began teaching his son piano when the boy was five. Should parents be liable for imposing impossible standards on children, perhaps in an attempt to blue-pencil their own life story and redress neglect of their own talent?*
This gets to the heart of what an education is for in the first place. John Henry Newman had something pointed to say on that score, something lost on the Fletchers of the world:
If then a practical end must be assigned to a University course, I say it is that of training good members of society. Its art is the art of social life, and its end is fitness for the world. It neither confines its views to particular professions on the one hand, nor creates heroes or inspires genius on the other. Works indeed of genius fall under no art; heroic minds come under no rule; a University is not a birthplace of poets or of immortal authors, of founders of schools, leaders of colonies, or conquerors of nations. It does not promise a generation of Aristotles or Newtons, of Napoleons or Washingtons, of Raphaels or Shakespeares, though such miracles of nature it has before now contained within its precincts. Nor is it content on the other hand with forming the critic or the experimentalist, the economist or the engineer, though such too it includes within its scope. But a University training is the great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspiration, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political power, and refining the intercourse of private life. It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them.
J. K. Simmons, perhaps best known as the assistant chief on The Closer and J. Jonah Jameson in the Tobey Maguire Spider-man trilogy, is dynamite in a T-shirt as the bully with the unreproducible beat. He’s a jazzy Dr. Frankenstein: a monomaniac obsessing in his lab to will world-changing flair into existence, but concocting instead a creature whom he can’t control. Simmons’s Fletcher put me in mind of Denzel Washington’s Alonzo Harris in Training Day: he takes you by the scruff of the neck and twists you this way and that until you suffer whiplash. Is he a good guy, a bad guy, psychotic, despotic, or just one of those drill sergeants preparing his mamas’ boys for the harsh realities of the battlefield? One could argue that there’s no core to the character because he could be any of those things. But it is just as likely that, simul justus et peccator, he is all of the above, desperate to birth a prodigy, even as he leaves battered corpses sprawled along Ninth Avenue. (One could almost make the case that Fletcher is a salvific figure, who kills to make alive, and who ultimately sacrifices himself for a very select elect, but I think that would be stretching a metaphor to the breaking point, and a tad beyond what the filmmakers intended.)
In any event, little surprise that Simmons earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar last month.
And Teller (Divergent), for his part, is nothing less than supernatural as the kid wonder on the snare, playing the ambitious boor cum babe in the woods with just the right inflections. Although he has not gotten the kind of formal accolades Simmons has, give him time, he’s only getting warmed up.
I alluded to the slightly fantastic element at the start. The lengths to which Andrew goes to succeed, and to which Fletcher pushes his students, almost strain credulity to the point of atheism. I say almost because thirty-year-old writer-director Damien Chazelle ensures that the rhythm of the film keeps pace with the syncopated cadence of Andrew’s drums, such that you’re never given a chance to think too hard about why the authorities aren’t called or how likely this or that was to have really happened. And the final display of virtuosity—in which you have no idea who’s playing whom—will keep you awake for nights to come, and is itself cause to forgive anything.
One caveat: if you are sensitive to vulgar language, I’m sorry to say that you may want to sit this one out, because the epithets Fletcher hurls like javelins into the egos of his young stewards are both noxious and un-PC, which is sort of the point.
* It should be noted that the actual Helfgott was diagnosed with schizophrenia later in life, and that the depiction of his father was denounced as a fiction by those close to the family.
Feature image courtesy of BagoGames, January 2015.