There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.

There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.

In practicing any talent, one has to go through drilling. It could be running back-and-forth across a given distance, or reading a chapter of a text over and over, or playing the same eighteen notes over, and over, and over again. It’s mind-numbing, tedious, sometimes painful, always boring, and can be more frustrating to witness as it is to endure. It’s meant to instil a core skill-set into a person and then wail away on that skill set to make sure it won’t bend, break, or give way. The crazy thing about it is that nobody wants to do it. The protegé finds it boring, and the mentor finds it frustrating. But it continues to be done, and will always be done, because it’s the only way to develop true greatness.

WHIPLASH is the story of Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a first year music student at Schaffer Music Academy. He’s a good drummer, but not what many there would consider up-to-snuff. In the only ensemble he’s won a place in, he remains the alternate percussionist. While practising his drumming one day, he is noticed by a conductor named Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Fletcher sees something in Neyman’s drumming, and asks him to come out and play in the Academy’s core jazz ensemble – the top group at the school. Neyman gets a confidence boost from this. He can see how proud it makes his father, and it even gives him the courage to finally ask out a cute girl he’s seen around for a long time.

The boost, however, is short-lived.

Once he takes his place in jazz core, he discovers that Fletcher is a ball-buster. He berates him in front of the entire ensemble, making him play the same bars repeatedly, calling him every name in the book, and even hurling objects at his head. The crazy thing, is that all of this abuse somehow works. Neyman finds a higher gear and becomes an even better drummer because of it, eventually managing to supplant the ensemble’s lead drummer. However, in art every victory is fleeting, and in the eyes of someone like Fletcher…they aren’t really victories at all.

How long until Neyman flames-out?

JK Simmons in Whiplash

One of the most indelible images in WHIPLASH is the unexpected amount of bleeding we see on-screen. Throughout its runtime we continually come back to images of blood spatters on the skins, beads of sweat on the cymbals, trickles of blood dripping down Andrew’s wrist, blood skipping in time with the beat of the sticks. There may in fact be more blood in this movie than there were in the last two EXPENDABLES films. It’s a visceral image that never stops shaking us. Those beads of red make us wince, make us squirm, and become an intense visual metaphor for “the cost”. That’s the unexpected side-effect of violence in film becoming so bloodless in pursuit of gentler ratings: we lose that sense of just how much is being lost. We are becoming desensitized to pain and sacrifice in many ways, including where it comes to blood spilled as willingly as Andrew does in this film. So let the pint of blood spilled in this film serve as a reminder: doing something great comes at a heavy price.

That price is physical (hence all the blood), but it’s also mental. Whether someone trying to be great has a person like Terence Fletcher berating them, or they mentally beat themselves up, it takes its toll. Fletcher calls this form of abuse “a necessity”, which of course flies in the face of the sort of nurturing and all-inclusive form of teaching slowly taking over the world. We want to teach our children that trying their best is all that matters – that they’ll get a trophy just for showing up, as will everybody else. But what’s the lesson there? That mediocrity is good enough? That when everybody’s special, nobody is? Maybe that does more harm than good, and we are actually robbing a generation of its most talented offerings by refusing to push them. So someone like Fletcher throws things at the person’s head, or they beat themselves up mentally, perhaps – like the blood – it’s the heavy price that must be paid.

Fletcher might seem like a cartoon at times, but I assure you mentors like him exist, and that’s a good thing. In an age where everyone sees themselves as a critic, there is an even greater need for those that can recognize true talent. Imagine where we’d be if all those thousands of people who showed up to try out for American Idol were actually given a turn at the mic. Where we’d be if everyone who posted videos of themselves playing guitars on YouTube played the great concert halls. We’d be surrounded by noise, wondering where the great art went, and relegating a generation of true talent to trying to make their sound be heard amidst the static.

In the face of this desolate prospect, we turn to people like Fletcher; people whose egos get the better of them sometimes, but who are invaluable as curators and tastemakers. They are able to spot the nuances that make the difference between “pretty good” and “stunning”. It’s exemplified in the first scene of Andrew having trouble in rehearsal, a scene where he is having trouble finding the tempo. He alternates between drumming too fast and too slow – and every time he’s doing it by just a fraction. None of us in the audience can hear the difference – but Fletcher can. His ear is better than ours, and that’s why we should trust him, and why Andrew should listen to him.

We like to walk away from criticism and mutter that the critic “doesn’t know what they’re talking about”. A lot of times though, they do: We just don’t want to hear it.

It’s this core theme that makes WHIPLASH so great, and what makes it rise above its wild, and sometimes predictable story beats. It spits in the face of the old saying “Do your best”, because the truth is that sometimes our best just isn’t good enough. That’s okay if we want to be ordinary people living ordinary lives, but if we hope to do something special, we will have to submit ourselves to high amounts of anguish, practice, critique, and effort. We may not want to do it, but without it there can be no true greatness.

Matineescore: ★ ★ ★ 1/2 out of ★ ★ ★ ★
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