Last month I described Birdman – unfavorably – as a “series of carefully scripted temper tantrums meant to embody the struggle of making capital ‘A’ Art.” I wouldn’t have guessed that a short time later, another film fitting that description would knock me on my ass.
Whiplash is a trenchant examination of greatness, approaching the idea not by deconstructing a success story, but instead by observing an integral moment in the life of someone who might become great. That person, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), is a jazz drummer in his first year at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory. A successful music career seems assured when acclaimed instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) invites Andrew to join his band, but not even Fletcher’s reputation for ruthlessness can prepare Andrew for the level of cruelty he’ll be made to endure.
Fletcher leads his band with the measured ferocity of a drill instructor, reasoning that his uncompromising and abusive brand of teaching is the gauntlet to be run by the next Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich. But the endeavor’s extreme emotional toll begs the question: Is it worth it?
This is something I think about often. To be truly extraordinary can require a level of obsession that precludes living a remotely balanced life, which most people would agree is unhealthy. This willful rejection of well-being in the pursuit of excellence – for oneself, for others, or both – can be at once selfish and selfless, in that it represents both the desire to be remembered for one’s achievements and the desire to bring about meaningful progress. But if a harmful amount of sacrifice is necessary for great things to happen, are these things really that great? How do we measure a man’s accomplishments against the monster he’s become as a result of them?
Watching Fletcher make a monster of Andrew is an incredibly intense experience – I’m still on edge a full day later – heightened by the question of whether redemption will take the form of triumph or defiance, if indeed it takes any form at all. And just when I thought the ending couldn’t be anything but patronizing or depressing, Whiplash found another way.