How much do you want it?
We’ve all heard the mantra time and time again: “If you want something bad enough, go for it. Never let anything get in the way of your dreams.” While resonant at some early point in our lives, this phrase has turned into a comfortable cliché often thrown around during commencement speeches. But, really, how bad do you want “it”? In the case of 19-year-old jazz drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), “it” is the all-too-close yet so-far-away ideal of becoming one of the greatest jazz musicians of his time (think a modern-day Buddy Rich). He’s passionate and driven, attending the prestigious and fictionalized Shaffer Conservatory of Music when, during a night of intense practicing, he unknowingly attracts the attention of renowned conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).
From the moment that Fletcher is introduced on the screen, it’s pretty clear that this is a man with a no-holds-barred personality. He bares the stern and unflinching presence of a military commander more than a conductor. What’s important about Fletcher is that he is no-nonsense: If musicians don’t live up to his standards, he’ll push them beyond even their own expectations. On paper, that principle sounds wonderfully uplifting. Upon execution, however, Fletcher enforces a brutal and ugly awakening that success cannot be romanticized or idealized. Suffering is paramount. And then more suffering. And more suffering. It’s part of the process to break down the musician’s soul and rebuild it again into a more formidable one.
For Andrew, he comes to this realization after Fletcher offers him a spot in his jazz ensemble. After initially encouraging Andrew to just “play his best and relax,” Fletcher unleashes his ferocious tactics of merciless screaming, face-slapping, and chair-throwing upon Andrew. Of course, Andrew cries. Even then, Fletcher doesn’t back down. He taunts him even further. While this moment was enough for the audience to cry and give up for Andrew, he simply picks up his drum sticks and awaits another grueling day with Fletcher.
Whiplash delves into the world of jazz by studying the unforgiving and uncompromising master-student relationship. Seen through Andrew’s eyes, it’s more like the tale of Sisyphus: he shows incredible perseverance in the face of Fletcher’s overwhelming discouragement. Simmons is astounding in his portrayal of the unnerving Fletcher, who ultimately tests Andrew’s desire to be a “real musician”: to serve the drums rather than serve his own self-satisfaction because, ultimately, self-satisfaction is an entirely separate idea from self-fulfillment. In this sense, their relationship is one of redemption, in which Fletcher only wants to bring out the best in Andrew. Even through the screaming and taunting, Andrew practices harder and harder. It’s through these moments of demanding cruelty in which we, as the audience and individuals, realize the depth of our desire of how bad we want “it.” If Andrew can tolerate the worst-case mentor scenario depicted by Fletcher, what else is there to actually stop him?
Through the seemingly esoteric premise focused on the lives of jazz musicians, writer-director Damien Chazelle heightens the intensity of what’s now considered a niche culture and presents the film more like a thriller. He also eschews the typically feel-good moralistic undertones that cling to underdog triumphing in a sports or arts related field. Instead, Chazelle courageously shows the ugly side of success that so many people are too afraid to consider when it comes to sugarcoating their own American Dream.