Whiplash (2014): What Price Perfection?

This is one movie Tiger Mom can wholeheartedly approve. There’s a line spoken by the critical-to-the-point-of-sadistic music teacher Mr. Fletcher:

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.'”

In a sense, Whiplash can be taken as the dramatization of that Tiger Mom philosophy.

Whiplash Movie Still

The 2014 Sundance winner is writer/director Damien Chazelle’s second feature. In Whiplash, which he also wrote, Chazelle tells a very original story, the training of a music student and the intense, ambivalent relationship between a mentor and his trainee. How far can a teacher go before crossing the line into abuse, however well the teacher’s intention to draw out the best from the student?

We see the tortuous journey a promising jazz drummer, Andrew (Miles Teller), has to embark on as he freshly enters the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in NYC. I’m not in the position to say whether it indirectly reflects upon which music school, so I better not dwell on this further. But one thing I do agree is that, yes, the Western way is too full of praise. The pursuit of excellence is often replaced by that of fun, and complacency and self-satisfaction (to protect self-esteem) the stumbling block to improvement. Tiger Mom can attest to that too.

Andrew has all intentions to learn and master top notch drumming skills under the demanding tutelage of Fletcher. He doesn’t want to be just a good drummer, he wants to be great, and he is willing to pay the price to get there. Being selected to play in Fletcher’s studio jazz band is a coveted privilege, staying in there requires nothing short of the physical and mental endurance as required in a war zone.

Like the drill sergeant in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), yelling insults and putdowns at the young recruits, shattering egos and self-confidence, Fletcher keeps his players in shipshape form by ruthless coercion and intimidation. He demands perfection. J. K. Simmons is most impressive in his role as Fletcher. What a transformation to Mr. Hyde from the kind and loving Dad in Juno (2007). It is likely that he will have a place in the award nominations come the next two months.

Miles Teller as Andrew is equally tenacious. Thus we see a dynamic duo in contention, excellent acting from both. Teller may have lots of competition when it comes to a Best Actor nom, but he is still young and has fuel for miles to come. His drumming skills are impressive too, or is it the excellent camera and editing work?

The agile camera is effective in depicting the intensity of the relationship between Andrew and Fletcher, capturing the dramatic effects like a thriller, with manic drumming in impossibly fast tempo and the exasperating face of Andrew’s that exudes both anguish and determination. Seamless editing, gripping cinematography and sound are prominent elements that will likely be acknowledged at award noms.

What price perfection? What does a student have to do to gain acceptance and respect from his teacher, the one whose approval that matters most in his training?

What started off as realistic storytelling a la suspenseful drama in the first two acts begins to transform into a totally different genre more like magical realism in the final scenes. Like Gone Girl is a dramatic exaggeration of a marriage gone wrong, Whiplash is a hyperbole of a troubled teacher/student relationship taken to the extreme.

How to get to Carnegie Hall is not only by way of practice, practice, practice, but also entails plenty of blood, sweat, and tears. We see the free flow of all the above in the movie.

Despite my reluctance to fully embrace the ending sequences, I have thoroughly enjoyed the movie. A very original story idea well executed as a suspense thriller, add in some fine jazz music and mood setting technical effects, Whiplash is an impressive production from a young writer/director with great potential. I can’t help but wonder if there’s any real life similarity between him and his protagonist.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

 Awards Update:

Feb. 22, 2015: J. K. Simmons wins Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Also wins Oscar in Sound Mixing, Editing.

Feb. 21, 2015: J. K. Simmons wins Best Supporting Actor at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Feb. 8, 2015: 3 BAFTA wins for Best Supporting Actor, Editing, Sound.

Jan. 15, 2015: 5 Oscar noms for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing.

Jan. 11: J. K. Simmons wins Golden Globe

Dec. 11: J. K. Simmons gets Golden Globe nom for Best Supporting Actor

Dec. 10: J. K. Simmons gets SAG nom for Best Supporting Actor

Dec. 7: J. K. Simmons wins Best Supporting Actor at the L.A. Film Critics Awards

Dec. 1: J. K. Simmons wins Best Supporting Actor from the New York Film Critics Circle

Whiplash has received 4 Film Independent Spirit Award nominations including Best Feature, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (J. K. Simmons), and Best Editing.

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

24 thoughts on “Whiplash (2014): What Price Perfection?”

  1. I’ve read a lot of convincing research and gathered a lot of first-hand evidence that praise is one of the most effective ways to get writers to improve; I think this is largely because most writers need confirmation that the parts they think are good are coming across as good to someone else.
    Music is different. But this is counter-intuitive, because I’d say that music is also about communication, at least of emotion. It must be because you have to reach a certain level of proficiency before you’re able to communicate anything.


    1. Jeanne,

      I’m sure we agree on the importance of praise where deserves. The quote at the beginning of this post is uttered by a character, and one has to sit through the movie to understand his perspective, albeit one doesn’t have to agree with him. As I said in the review, “Like Gone Girl is a dramatic exaggeration of a marriage gone wrong, Whiplash is a hyperbole of a troubled teacher/student relationship taken to the extreme.” This is pure fiction.


      1. On the other hand (re: praise as a means to improvement) there are several aspiring writers I know who haven’t improved one whit because they constantly are being praised. It’s a phenomenon that’s especially noticeable on the internet, where someone will post a story, poem, or essay, and everyone coos, “Oh, that’s so wonderful.” It may be, but it’s also possible that it isn’t, and while it’s lovely to hear, “Gosh, what wonderful writing,” it’s far more profitable to either be challenged, or given specific feedback on what works.

        That alone makes me want to see this film — to see how the instruction takes place.

        From another perspective, I’m eager to see it because I’ve been following the development of another, very young, drummer over the years. His instruction has been radically different, and it will be interesting to compare the two.


  2. Great review Arti … And I particularly agree with the comments you make regarding areas for likely award nominations as it was impressive. The acting, the camerawork and editing.

    I’m going to repeat here pretty much what I’ve said to you elsewhere. I agree that the closing sequences were rather unreal but I was prepared to suspend my disbelief, as I thought they worked dramatically.

    I was interested in its exploration of what you will do for art, and what is art worth? Is it worth destroying yourself or being pushed to destroy yourself to be a Charlie Bird Parker? What price teaching/mentoring that is physically and emotionally brutal … which we know can be/has been pretty much state institutionalised in some countries. I’m thinking for example of Li Cunxin, the dancer. For every “success” out of such treatment, how many “failures”, and of those successes, has the success been worth it, emotionally, mentally? I suspect every artist’s view is different depending on where they ended up (a well-rounded success, a damaged success, a damaged failure, or a well-rounded one, and everything in between?) I reckon there’s a lot of leeway between “good job” and brutality. Praise is a tricky thing … Indiscriminate praise is surely worthless and potentially limiting, but praised used well can be a powerful tool in any endeavour I think and is always preferable. But then, I value a mentally healthy life above all else!


    1. WG,

      Thanks for your eloquent comment. I couldn’t have put it in a better light than what you’ve articulated, especially your weighing in about the delicate matter called praise. While I don’t fully agree with the Tiger Mom mentality and method of childrearing, I can’t dismiss it totally in that, praise can offer a delusional effect that only gratifies the ego, or self-esteem, as they like to treasure nowadays in school. I still remember someone relaying an incident to me, while tutoring her son at home, she’d put an ‘X’ mark by a wrong math answer and was confronted with protest from him saying she couldn’t do that, for it would hurt his feelings. Your exploration into the realm of art making, or anything of value and quality, confirms the notion that such endeavours entail much hard work and sacrifices. I can’t imagine Beethoven after composing the 9th Symphony said, “There, I had a lot of fun doing that.” What I can equate with a masterpiece is anguish, torturous self-doubts and agonizing attempts to reach perfection.

      Anyway, the movie is brilliant in bringing out the tension between mentor/student and raising lots of questions for debates and discussions, the ripple effects, if you will. The awards are coming in, just this morning Dec.1, J. K. Simmons is announced as the winner of Best Supporting Actor from the NY Film Critics Circle. More will come I’m sure.

      As for the anecdote Fletcher says about Charlie Bird Parker, I read Richard Brody’s ‘correction’ in the New Yorker. Apparently, he is not so keen about the accuracy of the story. Here’s the link to his article.

      I’m excited about the upcoming awards nominations, not for vanity for the artists, but deserving recognition of excellence. I know, just one person will get the award among many talents, but from a pure sense of the word, an artist works not to gain awards. I still like to believe that. 😉


      1. Thanks for that link Arti … Interesting. The fact that it didn’t really happen in truth that way with Parker, doesn’t really change the issue, does it? There were plenty of examples in memoirs to show that the attitude to bringing out the best in someone is not isolated to this movie. The apocryphal Parker story was nice for the filmmakers because it was a jazz reference.

        I agree re meaningless praise and re refusing to effectively correct young people. I did think particularly when we were in the US in the 1990s that this was way overdone, and I think it has gradually crept in over here too.

        There is, I believe, a sensible medium in all this. Artists who might torture themselves about their work is one thing … But being tortured by another is a whole different ball game.


            1. Thanks Arti … I’m always tweaking my posts for that reason.

              It’s frustrating when you can’t edit your own comments on another blog though I suppose it could get silly. One could change what one said leaving a responding comment high and dry!


  3. Thanks for your take on this — it’s a film Rick has wanted to see and I didn’t know much about it. I think it will be hard fo me to see. I have never learned by insult or being beat down. I will stop then and there. But the slightest bit of praise will push me forward. Not unfounded praise or false compliments, but positive feeling. When I like something, the teachers, the people, they make it fun, I am so there. And when it’s not — well, there a million other dreams to pursue.


    1. Jeanie,

      I’m sure you’ll enjoy watching this in terms of the process of art making as commented by WG above. You’ll like the intense performance between the two main actors, the mood setting cinematography and sharp editing. Overall, a fine production. No, there isn’t any “Gone Girl’ type of violence, but the suspense is no less. 😉


  4. Your comparison of Fletcher to a drill sergeant is exactly what I pictured in my mind — tearing down to reshape and mold. The discussion about appropriate praise piqued my curiosity as well.


    1. nikkipolani,

      You know, this is more like a suspense/thriller, so not an idyllic mentor/student movie, albeit the intention is there “to tear down in order to reshape and mold.”, with a different touch. 😉


  5. Reading the rest of the comments, I was reminded of this, from Flannery O’Connor. I daresay it applies to more than writing.

    “The high-school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. He will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the customs of many lands. And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed.”

    That gives me a grin every time I read it.


    1. Linda,

      Thanks for your quote, yes, I think Flannery O’Connor might enjoy this movie too, right up her alley in its ‘violent’ takes…

      I’d place this movie in the suspense/thriller genre. So definitely not your ‘To Sir, With Love’ kind of stuff. And if you’ve caught my ‘Hyde transformation’ analogy, it’s more nasty than your run-of-the-mill mentor/student film, but, one that I know you’ll enjoy, just for the intensity and powerful sequences. I’d love to hear your view on it. Do come back and share after. 😉


  6. What an intriguing-sounding film. I’m afraid I espouse a very dull teaching view, which is all about balance. Students need to know what they’ve done wrong, and where they can improve, but they also need to know what they’ve done right (and in the early stages of learning, that they’ve done something right at all!). You need a bit of both. Having worked with a lot of troubled students, my feeling is that the external voice of the teacher needs to work with the internal voices in the students’ heads. That internal superego voice can become recklessly harsh, crippling all progress. Or it can become procrastinatory, too afraid of making mistakes. Or it can become complacent, as a way of avoiding the pain of correction. If you are lucky enough to have the space and time to work with a student, mostly it’s about getting that inner voice closer to reality – and accepting what the reality of learning entails – and that simply takes thought and a firm but gentle reality check. The super-harsh voice of the tiger mother works in concert to reinforce the student’s harsh superego commands, which can lead to some impressive results, but usually at cost to mental wellbeing, as is always the case if we favour only the extreme. As I say, I’m dull! Moderation in all.


    1. litlove,

      I think I’ve expressed this before, maybe in a comment on your blog, that I’d love to be in your class as your student. A teacher who seeks balance, gently correcting wrongs, and encouraging improvement is an ideal teacher, and perceptive enough to know which is needed when. This film is pure fiction, a hyperbole of a teacher/student relation gone wrong, well, it’s never right to begin with. Not the fault of the student, but here we’re presented with not just a character, but the debatable issue of the place of ‘tough love’ in teaching. No love lost here. We’re confronted with only tension and suspense, so much better for us viewers. Pure entertainment. Hope you’ll get a chance to see it. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Charlotte,

      I’d be most curious to see your response to this movie, the POV from a music student and soon to be professional performer. Enjoy your family time watching it together. But I doubt there’s a DVD yet. It’s still being shown in the theatres. Not sure about the UK though.


  7. Interesting reading the comments. I saw the trailer last night because this is on at a local cinema. I found it depressing. Firstly because it immediately set up a false opposition between praise and criticism. Secondly because striving for conformity with a mentor’s wishes strikes me more as indoctrination than creativity. Thirdly because yet another narrative about winners tells us nothing about how to just get on with the higher statistical probability that nearly everyone has of having to live with not being one. Oh lawks – how sunk in sin nearly all of us are!

    I suppose at least the film isn’t yet another film about murder.


    1. Jeff,

      Not about murder, but ‘torturous’ enough. And there’s blood, sweat, and tears in the process. I highly recommend you view this film, and am curious to know what you’ll think of it. You’re welcome to come back and share your view… or any of the movies I’ve reviewed here. You’re right, always it’s in the comment section that one finds interesting exchanges, that’s why the name of this blog. Hope to hear from you again.


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