What is needed to achieve perfection? This is the question at the heart of “Whiplash,” the drama film starring Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons now in theaters. The answer we are given turns what could have been a brilliant film into a sick justification of abuse and a twisted thesis on the purpose of music.
Miles Teller stars as the story’s protagonist Andrew Neyman. A drummer at an extremely prestigious music conservatory, Neyman is invited to join the school’s best jazz band by J. K. Simmons’ character Terence Fletcher. Fletcher is quickly shown to be an abusive bully whose cruel methods lead Neyman on an increasingly deranged quest to master his instrument.
The early scenes of abuse are some of the film’s most powerful. The fear and submission we see in the faces of the musicians as Fletcher rants, screams, slaps Neyman, and throws things is reminiscent of “Twelve Years a Slave.” The unforgettable scenes of the slaves being forced to dance and play music for the cruel plantation owner in the middle of the night bear a strong resemblance to Fletcher’s abuse. It’s clear the students must take the abuse in order to use the experience to further their music careers. In a way they are Fletcher’s indentured servants. In both films once joyous music becomes increasingly sad and twisted. The homophobic and bigoted remarks we hear from Fletcher only add to the similarities.
Fletcher’s tyranny eventually turns whatever love Neyman truly had for drums into an obsession that is downright insane. He becomes fixated on living up to Fletcher’s expectations, so much so in fact he begins to injure his romantic life, mental stability, physical health, and even jeopardize his personal safety. We see him literally, bleed, sweat, and cry on the drums. This all leads to Fletcher and Neyman on stage together at the film’s climax, and this is where we truly see why the movie is a failure.
This is not a film about overcoming abuse. In the emotional on stage climax we are first lead to believe that this is Neyman defeating Fletcher and finally overcoming his abuser. This is sadly not the case. Fletcher and Neyman start feeding off each other’s energy, and in doing so Fletcher helps Neyman deliver the performance of his life. We are being told that only through the crucible of torturous mistreatment, mental anguish, and physical abuse can true perfection be attained. Fletcher is made to look like he was in the right all along. He hurt others, destroyed dreams, and drove people to mental illness and suicide, but it was all worth it to create perfection in Neyman. It is a disturbing and foolish message.
Teller and Simmons do give great performances, and in Simmons’ case it justifies an Oscar nomination. This isn’t enough to make up for the movie’s abundance of other problems. The film doesn’t feature many females besides Neyman’s girlfriend Nicole, and even she is only there to add depth to Neyman’s character. It is a shameful waste of actress Melissa Benoist’s talent. Couple this with the insults fletcher throws at a female musician and we start to see there is no small amount of sexism here.
Even the outstanding music is poisoned by the time the movie ends. Neyman seems to have it in his mind that creating great music is about being remembered and giving your all so you can in some way overcome your mortality. It appears all he wants is to be discussed and admired long after he is gone. This bit of seemingly objectivist self-glorification spoils what should have been the best part of the movie. There is no passion and respect for the art, no desire to create beauty or give the audience a meaningful experience. In fact we see Fletcher screw the audience over at least twice. This makes what should be lively music sound hollow and unappealing. During the Climax we see Neyman’s father, played by Paul Reiser, watch his son play with a stunned look on his face. We hope it is appalled shock at the crazy, mechanical thing his son has become, but it is probably supposed to be amazement and awe.
If this film was supposed to be inspiring it failed. I fear the only thing it will inspire is, dare I say, a string of abusive coaches and instructors who will take its message to heart. A classical pianist friend of mine informed me this kind of training would never work and that the best instructors are gentle with their students. It makes sense when you think about it. At its best music expresses so much of our emotion and essence. If all we are filled with is obsession, narcissism, and pain we can be sure it will corrupt the music. This is why “Whiplash” is an overrated, lousy film. It can’t see that to be great one must find passion and drive within themselves. Yes we must work hard, and sometimes that means pain, being pushed, and suffering, but we don’t destroy ourselves in the process. Perfection is just not worth that cost. We have to use music as a way to inspire and enlighten others. We must not use it as a way to elevate ourselves alone above everyone else and cut ourselves off from all that is good and loving in our lives. If we follow this movie’s advice all we get is emotionless music, ruined lives, and blood on the symbols.