There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.
TERENCE FLETCHER (J.K. SIMMONS)
Whiplash is about jazz and drumming. It probably helps to have a love for music and some knowledge of it to appreciate this film. But this movie isn't about music. It is about excellence and the sacrifice and suffering it takes to achieve that excellence. It also provokes a question. Is that excellence worth all that sacrifice and suffering?
J.K. Simmons plays jazz band conductor Terence Fletcher who teaches at the Shaffer Conservatory. Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a student at the conservatory who is a drummer with ambitions of becoming the next Buddy Rich. That ambition carries him into the clutches of Fletcher who is nothing short of a monster. Simmons would win the Oscar for best supporting actor playing the utterly sadistic Fletcher.
Fletcher drives Neiman to his emotional and even physical breaking points, and Neiman takes it until he can take it no more. Fletcher is a nutjob, but Neiman is one, too. They are paired in a monomania to be the best in a musical genre no one really cares to listen to much anymore.
This monomania costs both of them. Fletcher ends up losing his job at Shaffer. Neiman ends up being expelled after assaulting Fletcher in a violent breakdown. Neiman winds up working in a restaurant and trying to get into a regular college while Fletcher goes on to performing with his own band. The two meet again and play again, and the movie ends on a triumphant but bittersweet note.
I enjoyed the movie immensely, and I recommend it highly. It is superbly acted and thought provoking. Critics will claim that excellence does not demand the sadism of the Fletcher character, and I am inclined to agree. But it does demand discipline, strictness, practice, and sacrifice. We live in a time when the stern taskmasters such as Fletcher have been driven out, and the snowflakes of today have their way. The result is a high degree of mediocrity in many fields of endeavor.
J. K. Simmons channels many characters we have seen before such as John Houseman's Kingsfield in The Paper Chase or Lou Gossett in An Officer and a Gentleman. The stern teacher and the student/apprentice is a well worn archetype in the world of stories. But Simmons takes it over the edge. As such, he is more like the drill instructor from Full Metal Jacket. His belief is that excellence takes more than just mere dedication. It takes madness.
Good teachers should embody wisdom not savagery. While watching Simmons's performance, I couldn't help of thinking about notorious basketball coach Bobby Knight who pushes his players in the same sadistic way. He has victories and has produced excellent players on the college level. But Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski have been more spectacular in their coaching careers without making complete asses out of themselves.
Regardless of whether your teacher is wise or sadistic, excellence still requires a high degree of dedication to the exclusion of other things. This is captured best in the film with the short and doomed relationship that Neiman has with Nicole, a girl he meets working the concessions at a movie theater. You can tell he is smitten with the girl, but then he dumps her for his drumming. When he tries later to reconnect with her, he learns she has a new boyfriend. His opportunity with her is lost as he has sacrificed everything to be the best.
Does excellence require this level of sacrifice? Unfortunately, I believe it does. I agree with Mencken when he said that he didn't think Beethoven and Goethe were any good at billiards or golf. In my experience, the people who are the best at a thing combine great talent with unrelenting work ethic and dedication to their field of endeavor. This field of endeavor is always singular. The result is a human being with a high degree of excellence in that one thing and virtually nothing else including personal relationships.
Should a person make such sacrifices? I don't think so. I appreciate the people who make these sacrifices because they do bring special things into this world. But I can never ask or expect anyone to sacrifice their humanity and even their souls to be good at playing a musical instrument or moving a ball or a hockey puck through space.
Excellence requires intensity and focus. This is the message of hyperspecialization. I have never cared for specialization. I don't have the defects that would make me excellent in a singular endeavor and that includes writing. I like being married. I like variety. I like being able to talk about many things. I like having a life. And, that is the good thing I take from this film. I am not the best at anything or even particularly good at anything. I am and was unwilling to make those sacrifices, and I can live with that. I can live to be rich and sober at 90 and be forgotten by the world. I would rather have that than the short and spectacular life of a famous lunatic. And that, my friends, is the lesson to take away from this spectacular movie. Everything comes at a cost. If you're going to sacrifice everything for something, that something better be worth that sacrifice. Otherwise, be content with being a humble nobody.