The drummer drama Whiplash confronts our collective delusions about personal achievement and greatness.
Release date: October 10, 2014 (USA)
Director: Damien Chazelle
Stars: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser
Running time: 106 minutes
MPAA rating: R
We love to love the elite. And then hate them. David Beckham. Lindsay Lohan. Lance Armstrong. Tom Cruise. Mark Zuckerberg. Tiger Woods. We’re a celebrity-obsessed culture, hungry to vicariously enjoy the rise and fall of those who are “the greatest.” But what the hell is greatness? And how does one achieve it?
Let’s get the easy part out of the way: Go see Whiplash. Don’t wait for on-demand, because your 55” screen and Dolby 5.1 setup won’t do it justice. You need to go see it in the theater. It will exhilarate you. It’s a percussive, thrilling, exquisitely taut character study of one young man’s pursuit of greatness. If you’re like me, you’ll leave the theater with your ears ringing and your entire body sore from being tensed-up for 2 hours. It shifts from triumphant to heartbreaking repeatedly and is so nerve-wracking it’s painful. (I’m told this is how it feels to date me.)
The film follows Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a freshman at an elite, Juliard-like music conservatory. Although a talented drummer, he faces intense competition in his quest to be the drummer for the school’s top jazz band. Even worse than the competition is the band’s conductor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a maniacally strict teacher that pushes his students up to and sometimes past the brink of collapse. His tactics are extreme, but the implication is that his harshness is what brings greatness out of his students. Teller (Spectacular Now) and Simmons (Spiderman, Juno) are both outstanding as obsessed perfectionists, and Teller deserves special credit for being able to even look like such a great drummer.
On one level, Whiplash is your basic great drama: our hero wants something badly but continually runs into obstacles and must overcome them. In that way, it’s really a sports movie about music. Like Rocky or Rudy or Karate Kid, we are compelled to root for the hero in our bones. The story crystallizes desire and ambition. It translates that which (in reality) is a life-long dedication bordering on obsession into – you know – two hours of really wanting our guy to “win.” That’s what this genre has to do to be successful, and Whiplash does it. Teller’s Andrew Neyman is someone we ache to see win.
That’s all good, but where Whiplash really elevates itself is through the questions the writer/director Damien Chazelle asks about the cost of that “winning.” There’s a scene midway through the film in which Andrew breaks up with a girlfriend so he can focus more on his drumming. This is just one example of the ambiguity Chazelle inspires so effectively: at once we’re sure Andrew’s doing the right thing and also that he’s making a terrible mistake.
While the film focuses on the tug of war between victory and defeat (tantalizing us with spectacular highs and lows every 10 minutes) it takes a much more contemplative approach to its larger thematic question. As Andrew’s road gets tougher and his relationship with the conductor Fletcher more antagonistic, we begin to feel a slow dread take over. Not simply dread that Andrew will fail, but that his very ambition to become “elite” is flawed, because the type of dedication it requires is self-destructive. It’s quite a feat to pull off: at the same time we badly want Andrew to succeed, we also wonder if he might be better off failing. I think that’s the reason the film resonates so much. It confronts our collective delusions about personal achievement and greatness.
Our society favors – no, is obsessed with – the myth of the “magical” talent. The prodigy. The BEST. We put them on the proverbial pedestal, and then we put that pedestal in a 50th floor penthouse in Manhattan. Somehow, for a reason beyond my understanding, we seem to want to believe that they’re innately different, innately better than everyone else when they’re born.
But that is rarely the truth. Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour” rule is just the latest pop-science treatment of what the elite in any meritocratic field have always known: true greatness is achieved through life-long dedication and obsession that – by definition – is pretty much insane. There’s a lot of sacrifice and not a lot of balance in these lives. Look at those elite heroes we love to hate after we’ve loved them: Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, and most recently Michael Phelps.
All have “cracked” in their own ways, and even if they were once “the greatest,” they’ve clearly become lost and miserable despite the fact. It can be fascinating and thrilling and heartbreaking to watch, and the same is true for Whiplash.