Moss Island Sound Off – Whiplash

Moss Island Sound Off

Moss Island Sound OffMoss Island welcomes guest contributors. Sound Off features alternate takes on movies and other subjects.

Saturday’s Whiplash review prompted some excellent discussion on social media over the weekend.  I’ve asked a few of those writers to contribute their essays for your additional consideration.  This is the first.

I have finally watched Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, a movie about the relationship between a talented young drummer, Andrew Nieman (played by Miles Teller) and his abusive, sociopathic music teacher, Terence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons).

Fletcher’s character is a music teacher-as-drill-instructor archetype blown up to monstrous proportions. Fletcher terrorizes his students, berating them with profanity-laced, sexist, homophobic tirades, even going so far as to throw a chair at Nieman when he can’t match Fletcher’s desired tempo. In one scene Fletcher auditions three drummers in a marathon session that Nieman finally wins after all three are drenched in sweat and completely exhausted. It makes for good theatre, if anything.

Fletcher’s motive, in his own words, is “to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is… an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong. The next Charlie Parker.” A repeated fable in the film is the legendary Jo Jones supposedly throwing a cymbal at Parker’s head when Parker screwed up a solo at a jam session (Fletcher recites the tale to Nieman a scene before he throws the chair at Nieman’s head). In Fletcher’s mind, and as the film wants us to believe, it was Jones’ mythical assault of Parker that spurred Parker (aka “Bird”) to become the great musician that he was. After Fletcher is fired from his conservatory job as a result of his “misunderstood” methods, he confides in Nieman his regret that, in his career as a teacher, he’s never found his “Charlie Parker.”

Of course, it’s a ludicrous premise. Leaving aside that Jones didn’t actually throw a cymbal at Bird’s head (Jones dropped it on the floor, like a gong), Bird wasn’t born out of one humiliation at a night club in Kansas City in 1937. Bird was made by mastering a language, and then making it into something that nobody had heard before. Bird did it by studying Lester Young, and checking out Art Tatum, and hanging out with Dizzy Gillespie, and being in New York City at the birth of a musical revolution. Jazz biographers may like to reference the Jones encounter as some sort of Rubicon-like moment in Bird’s evolution, but the truth is, he worked his ass off, he was in the right place at the right time, and, well, he was Charlie f-ing Parker. Bird was a genius in the truest sense of the word.

Whiplash’s message might have some value if the film rejected Fletcher’s philosophy, but instead it confirms it: Nieman buys into Fletcher’s method. Nieman sets out to impress Fletcher and win his approval, and beyond that, to be as “great” and “immortal” as his idol, Buddy Rich. Nieman practices until his hands bleed (in fact he bleeds all over the drums the whole movie, an effect that goes from perplexing to comic the more it occurs), breaks up with his girlfriend so he can concentrate entirely on music, all so that he can gain and hold the coveted drum chair in Fletcher’s band. In the end, Andrew gets the approval he seeks when Fletcher gives him a confirming nod following Nieman’s tour-de-force drum solo at a JVC Jazz Festival performance at Carnegie Hall. Whiplash’s message is that Fletcher’s abuse inspired Nieman’s maniacal approach to music, and perhaps was even necessary for Nieman to achieve his true potential. Fletcher’s nod in the finale communicates that, at last, Andrew has become Fletcher’s long-sought “Charlie Parker.”

Whiplash could be easily dismissed if it didn’t contain certain ugly grains of truth. To be clear, that truth is not that tyrannical abuse at the hands of teachers inspires “greatness” in students. The truth it alludes to is that there are still those among us who actually subscribe to Fletcher’s twisted philosophy. Although I’ve never seen anything close to Fletcher’s level of abuse, I have seen something of that ilk in both music school and in my professional life as an attorney. There are schools of thought in jazz education that preach a limited definition of what “jazz” is, and meet any exploration by students outside of that dogma with angry derision, condescension, red-faced recitations of the “rules”, and humiliation in front of peers. I saw that method estrange quite a few talented students, even driving some to transfer to other music schools.

The bullying I’ve seen in the practice of law has been worse. I’ve seen associates pulled into windowless rooms with senior attorneys and subjected to profanity-laced tirades, and publicly castigated by partners, at length and within earshot of an entire office. I’ve heard of partners calling associates in the early hours of weekend nights, demanding that they return to the office to complete some menial task. I’ve seen firms turn over an entire associate class within 2-3 years. I’ve seen associates driven nearly to the point of a nervous breakdown. What disturbs me the most is that I’ve also heard the bullying justified in the name of pushing associates to do their best work (Luckily for me, I now work at a firm that places high value on mentoring and nurturing their associates).

We’re maturing as a society to the point where hazing and bullying are widely seen as having no place in our schools and workplaces. The tragedy of Whiplash is that it has romanticized and resurrected a myth that needs to be permanently laid to rest. Certainly, one will encounter difficult personalities and adversity in the course of any career, whether as a musician or as an attorney. The lie that Whiplash tells is that such adversity needs to be manufactured by a mentor to inspire greatness, or that sociopathic abuse is somehow beatified when it correlates with mentees achieving heights of brilliance. In truth, such abuse has never inspired anything. In real life, it humiliates, stunts professional growth, destroys relationships, and leaves psychic wounds that require lots of time to heal. If ever our most gifted artists were subjected to such treatment at the hands of those who were supposed to be nurturing them, the art those artists later developed came about despite that abuse, not because of it.

Mackie LeFevre-Snee
Jersey City, New Jersey