What would you be willing to put yourself through to achieve your idea of greatness?
Teacher/student relationships have always been heavily romanticized in movies for years; the ability to inspire young minds to believe in themselves in order to accomplish great things is no easy task. As expounded on last year in Blue is the Warmest Color, we all want guidance, a mentor, in this unknowable world and we try to find that in various outlets; one of those being our teachers and educators. Damien Chazelle’s sophomore feature Whiplash begins with Andrew (Miles Teller) coming to think he has found that person in the demanding, hot-tempered and never-satisfied force-of-nature that is enigmatic Jazz Band Conductor Terrance Fletcher (J.K Simmons). There is the old introspective exercise of listing the most difficult teachers to get through their classes, then listing the teachers you got the most out of when you were their student, most of the time with those lists coinciding with one another one-to-one. It speaks to the things that push our limits actually in fact come to define who we are.
Miles Teller reaches new heights as the the promising upstart Drumming talent enrolled at a Juilliard-esque University Conservatory music program. He can only see the castles in the sky for himself, he just needs to find a way to build the foundation to them. His turn in The Spectacular Now as the free spirited teenager Sutter, who gets a lesson in the school of hard knocks put him on the map, made him a talent to watch out for in the future. Here as Andrew; however, the actor is the very anthesis of the easy-going carefree teen in his pervious movie. The guy knows what he wants and becomes incensed, doesn’t let anyone get in the way of that and will do whatever it takes to get it.
However, the person he entrusts to get him to this greatness is a band teacher for the ages in Simmon’s Fletcher. An always reliable character actor for more than a decade now in movies like in the first Spiderman Trilogy, Juno, Up in the Air and The Music Never Stopped, the actor has simply never been better as the angry, devious, micro-manager and unflinching whip-cracking leader of the most prominent Jazz Band at the Conservatory. He carries his scenes with a hardily obscure broiled-over anger and ferocity rarely seen this side of R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. Indeed, He shouts, curses, and throws homophobic slurs around like a certain famous drill Sergeant. There is always a palpable tension that hangs in the air whenever he is conducting, observing, punishing and outright mocking his students while playing complicated fast-paced Jazz arrangements. No one can be out-of-tune or a single beat behind, and he’ll make sure you know it. His methods are text-book psychological abuses and most of his pupils cower in fear of him, but he singles out Andrew as someone that can reach rarified air. All the kid needs is a “push” in the right direction.
Really that is what it boils down to, because it is up to our own sensibilities, determination and will-power to understand how much of a push we are willing to take in order to reach our peaks. We all would like to believe we are limitless in our pursuits of “making it”, but the truth is we have built thresholds that tell us when enough is enough. However, those barriers are built over years of experience in our chosen fields of profession, Collage age students do not have this benefit. Everyone thinks they are the next big thing when they are that age and will try to give that one more percent than the person next in line to become great. Andrew is in this school of thought; he is in constant race against his peers in a highly competitive profession, if he needs to eat, sleep, and bleed Jazz he will (and does he ever).
Fletcher is clearly abusing his status and influence amongst his pupils, the thing is no one really wants to admit defeat in the face of being challenged. It is doubtful any one of the Band members, especially Andrew, complained to the higher-ups of the the abrasive conductor. We all have our limits, the only way to discover them is by meeting them, and Fletcher aims to make his students face theirs head-on. You can call his methods abusive, shocking and downright tortuous; but he isn’t doing it just for the hell of it. He truly, or has to, thinks he is shaping the next Louis Armstrong’s, Charlie Parker’s and Mile Davis’, and for the kids that can’t deal with that; tough shit. You don’t have to be here, the door is always open.
I cannot understate the chemistry Simmons and Teller bring in all of their tension-filled scenes together. It is a rare battle of wills that is equal parts exciting, hilarious and horrifying to witness as Fletcher bares down on Andrew again and again for any imperfection in his skills as a musician. An immovable object meeting an unstoppable force, and a game of chicken where you’re not sure if the ‘win’ is worth it really at all. Everything that Andrew gives up in pursuit of his dream makes his relationship with Fletcher all the more locked in; everything that we sacrifice all has to mean something in the end, right?
So the answer to the question of what would you do for greatness, when pushed beyond anything rational and leaving nothing else on the table, could in fact surprise, shock and outright horrify you.