“Jazz guys were always the biggest assholes.”
Those were the first words out of my mouth after my wife and I had finished watching Damien Chazelle’s mentor/pupil mindfuck “Whiplash.”
Witnessing the ambitious 19-year-old jazz drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) being shunned by fellow musicians at New York’s fictitious Shaffer Conservatory, watching how the arrogant core drummer in the studio ensemble gave Andrew the time of day only when he wanted the kit tuned or the sheet music turned, seeing J.K. Simmons’ tyrannical conductor Terence Fletcher abusively pushing Andrew to his mental and physical limits, and watching the once-humble Andrew turn asshole himself after being named core drummer — dumping his seemingly chill girlfriend because he knows she’ll prevent him from becoming “one of the greats,” reminded me of all the elitism and attitude I’ve endured as a lowly rock drummer over the years from the musicians, school band directors and (possibly the worst offenders of the bunch) music store employees whose tastes and skill sets are rooted primarily in jazz.
Chazelle’s intent with “Whiplash” was most certainly not to reinforce the opinions of rock musicians who have been scarred by the cool dismissiveness of jazz-heads and can’t get over it. Himself a drummer and veteran of the high school jazz band competition circuit, Chazelle’s aim seems to be showing how cutthroat jazz is in a scholastic setting, where it’s all about the competition — amongst the players in your own ensemble, and against rival programs. He succeeds in showing how much work goes into being not just good but great, and much of it joyless. The simple joy of playing music seems to be an afterthought in this world, if it’s a consideration at all. Like, if you don’t end up playing professionally, then you can enjoy it — when potential careers and reputations aren’t at stake. This shit right here is life or death.
The stakes for the principals in “Whiplash” feel that high. You need look no further than the scared-shitless looks of the ensemble players the minute Fletcher strolls into the room dressed in all black like a bouncer at a nightclub with a velvet rope. As you watch the faces of the musicians while they wait for Fletcher’s cue, no one looks particularly psyched to play. They look like they’re just hoping that they don’t fuck up. He demands greatness from the first note. Notes are to be played as they appear on the page, even though jazz is rooted in improvisation. But you do not fucking improvise under this guy’s watch, unless he tells you to do so. And if you do, you had better pull the right notes out of your ass.
You should also be in tune. Unless you want to get berated in a most humiliating fashion in front of the whole ensemble before being shown the door. And drummers might want to have the good sense to know whether they’re rushing or dragging tempo when asked. Unless, like Andy experiences after his first stab at the Hank Levy composition from which the film draws its name, they’re looking to be slapped across the face on the fourth beat of every measure, moments after having a chair hurled at them mid-groove.
Fletcher’s scare tactics get everyone playing at the peak of their powers, and that’s all he’s looking for. I am familiar with this scenario. My grade school jazz band teacher reduced me to tears on several occasions by screaming at me. But damned if he didn’t get me to play along with the ensemble and not, as he used to shout, “like it’s a goddamned Pat Berkery drum solo with jazz band accompaniment,” his words bouncing off the walls of our cavernous school auditorium.
If someone’s feelings get hurt by Fletcher, or, in the case of a former student of his, they commit suicide, it’s collateral damage. But in Andrew’s case, this teaching method triggers a nearly psychotic determination to gain Fletcher’s approval and prove that he belongs as the top drummer in his studio band. So down the lonely rabbit hole of practice, practice, practice he goes.
Andrew’s pursuit of drumming greatness was probably all-consuming before Fletcher encountered him for the first time, woodshedding late into the night. The kid’s tiny apartment is floor-to-ceiling drums, jazz CDs and posters of Buddy Rich (a noted tyrannical bandleader, likely admired by Fletcher for his dubious people skills as much as his drumming). After Fletcher enters his world, playing mind games from the jump, Andrew takes the woodshedding to nuclear levels. There’s no life outside of jazz and drumming. Just bandage after bandage reapplied to bloody hands trying to master the wrist-burning double-time swing.
Such a pursuit for greatness in music — in any discipline or field, really — can be a terribly isolating and damaging experience. Chazelle does an excellent job in showing the physical and emotional toll of Andrew’s pursuit. You feel it when he’s practicing well past the point of exhaustion, spraying blood and sweat across his drums and cymbals before putting his fist clear through his snare head in frustration (don’t try this at home). He’s nearly killed in a car crash trying to make a competition, yet he crawls from the wreckage to make the gig, only to blow it badly. He dismisses the athletic pursuits of a similarly-aged male cousin, he dispatches his girlfriend rather cruelly, and he turns on the one band member he seemed to have any kind of bond with, fellow drummer Ryan Connolly, after Fletcher brings him into studio band to keep Andrew from getting too comfortable in his core drummer role.
And to what end? Once he’s headlong down that rabbit hole, Andrew seems way past the point of simply wanting Fletcher’s approval. He says he wants to be “one of the greats,” but is that really what’s driving him after a certain point? Or has Fletcher gotten so far inside his head that he merely just wants to stick it up this psychopath’s ass by showing him he can take all the abuse?
In the film’s climactic scene at Lincoln Center, Andrew plays a blazing solo just minutes after Fletcher sabotages him on stage by calling out a song he’s never played. It’s Fletcher’s band but this is clearly Andrew’s show now. As Fletcher guides him to tempo so he can bring the band back in, the mentor nods his head approvingly at his former pupil.
By this point in the game, maybe that is finally enough for Andrew. Not every musician has the drive or the stomach to pursue perfection to the degree Andrew does. But no matter the stakes, we all want the approval of someone who's withholding. Chazelle was smart to leave it right there.