To begin, I encourage you to read Gary Ingle’s original review of Whiplash, the Sundance Grand Jury and Audience Award winning film from the 2014 festival that is likely playing in a theater near you. I had heard good things about this film, but I hadn’t planned to see it. Gary convinced me, and if you read his review, I think he’ll convince you, too.
Gary’s review focuses mostly on Mr. Fletcher, the abusive teacher who terrorizes a young drummer in hopes of pushing him to greatness. I want to look a little more closely at Andrew, the young drummer willing to endure Mr. Fletcher’s abuse and scuttle other supportive relationships in his life in his quest for greatness. I was most taken with Andrew, and while I’m not a drummer and I’ve never driven myself to such extremes, I recognize many of his desires and choices in myself.
Mr. Fletcher’s teaching methods are indeed severe, but they are gentle compared to the self-criticism, self-doubt, and self-abuse Andrew heaps upon himself. Most of his pain and improvement comes not when Fletcher is shouting in his face, but when Andrew is alone in the drum studio he turns into his bedroom. It is here, in this private, interior space, where Andrew endures the most venom. Fletcher just gives voice to a portion of it. Fletcher confirms what Andrew already thinks – he could be great, but he is not yet, and he must work harder to become great. Neither Fletcher nor Andrew will settle for less than Andrew’s very best.
Complicating and confusing matters is Andrew’s father who would be happy to see Andrew quit and do anything else. Andrew’s father is there with open arms waiting to cushion his son’s fall when he is floundering. He even intimates that Andrew’s pursuit is a foolhardy one bound to end in failure and disappointment. He openly wishes his son would do something else. Andrew implies that his father once dreamed of being a great writer but settled for teaching instead, so perhaps his anti-support of Andrew is rooted in either his own sense of not measuring up or his experience of finding life rich on the other side of disappointment.
Very likely, Andrew’s father’s passive-aggressive discouragement is motivated by a sincere desire for Andrew’s well-being. Clearly, Andrew’s obsession with being the best jazz drummer who ever lived is driving him to some destructive ends, both physically and relationally. Andrew’s father is right to look out for his son. Furthermore, there is no way to guarantee that Andrew is exceptional. He may be chasing this dream in vain. No parent wants to see her or his child broken by disappointment. If Andrew is destined to fail, he’ll need his father’s love to catch him.
Success of the kind Andrew wants is impossible to predict. Music, especially jazz, is terrifically collaborative. Fame is unpredictable and fickle. Andrew’s ability to achieve his grand goal in life will depend on a myriad of factors. All Andrew can do is work to become the best drummer he can be. To discover how good of a drummer that is, Andrew needs both his father’s and Fletcher’s influence. He needs to be driven, and he needs to feel firm ground beneath his feet.
Andrew is immature. He doesn’t respond to either kind of support correctly. He projects his self-doubt upon others and lashes out at them. He does not trust others to be able to truly support him.
Andrew also holds to an immature definition of success – notoriety. Let’s imagine that he continues on his self-appointed path to greatness, continuing to make the same choices he made to get where he is as the credits roll. What would his life look like? He’d be recognized by many but truly known by few if any. He’d be great and alone, eventually dead like all others, though without having loved anyone but himself.
Andrew needs a better definition of artistic excellence. He needs to value technical excellence, yes, but he also needs to value faithfulness. He already treats his drumming as a destiny. He needs to treat it as a calling, as a vocation. Drumming is the thing that has been given to him to do, and he succeeds if he does it, not if he becomes famous for it. If he does it in whatever quantity is healthy no matter the notoriety he does or does not gain, he will have done enough as a drummer. He will have done enough as a human being if he loves others and trusts them to love him by supporting his vocation.
A vocation is a gift given to us by God. In turn, we are to give ourselves to the world through it. As we give of ourselves to our families, our friends, our church and civic communities, they have the opportunity to give back to us of themselves out of their callings and to support us as we are faithful to them through our vocations.
What would it look like for Andrew to give of himself out of his vocation to his community? Whiplash doesn’t necessarily show us. However, as you drive home, if you find yourself humming a tune or tapping your foot to a phantom beat, you’ll be on the right track. Individual vocations shared equally for the benefit of all others, everyone giving so that her or his neighbor has a chance to express his or her vocation fully, sounds a lot like a jazz band to me, a really good jazz band.
You might also find these reviews of Whiplash helpful: