Recently someone asked me if I had seen the 2014 Oscar nominated film “Whiplash” directed by Damien Chazelle. I told them that yes, I had seen it, and that I have a deep, visceral hatred for it. Without fail, people are SHOCKED to learn that I, a musician and music educator, would dislike the film, and they ask me why I so strongly hate it. I am usually equally shocked that they enjoyed it. My hatred is so overwhelming that I am usually inarticulate in my explanation, so here are my calm, cogent thoughts about this movie.
First, I can applaud the aesthetic beauty of the film. The cinematography, color, shot composition, editing, etc. are fantastic and I really enjoyed the immersive way that the ultra-close-ups pull you into the scene, and how the highly stylized lighting and color grading supported the overall characterization of Jazz. Even the performances I can admit were outstanding, J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller have insane chemistry and the tension is legit. Many other aspects of the film as a “film” were also excellent.
The root of my hatred is in the writing. The basic premise or “take away” from the film is that (Andrew) the student became a successful musician as a direct result of the fascist, sadistic, and cruel teaching methods of his homophobic, manipulative terrible-person of a teacher (Fletcher). Fletcher yells, demeans, insults, physically slaps his student, throws a chair at him, and uses private details about his students’ personal life to embarrass him publicly. He also psychologically manipulates his student, uses him for his own advance, curses at him, intentionally sets him up to fail, undermines him, coerces him to injure himself, and flat out bullies him.
Fletcher is THE WORST TEACHER IN THE HISTORY OF FICTIONAL TEACHERS. He makes the teacher from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory look like a pedagogical genius. Class dismissed.
About 30 minutes into the movie I was thinking “oh man, is this going to be INCREDIBLE when this kid (Andrew) finds the courage to stick up for himself, and brings down this colossal ass of a teacher.” I truly thought that was where it was headed; surely this “best picture” nominee couldn’t be as predictable and trite as a “Jazz version” of some cliché sports movie where the “tough coach” pushes the “cocky but gifted” young athlete to achieve greatness… oh wait that’s exactly what happens. Class un-dismissed.
One of the most insulting things to watch is how completely incompetent this teacher is. I (or ANY decent music educator) could have solved the “issues” that Andrew was struggling with in about five minutes. Want to play faster right now? Lower your stick heights, play quieter, make smaller movements. Want to play faster later? Use your metronome, go slow, adjust your grip/technique, gradually speed up and stop trying to be Buddy Rich. Etc. Etc. Notice the lack of physical violence or chair throwing. Fletcher’s “teaching techniques” exist because he has no pedagogical skills, no tools in his toolbox, no patience, no empathy, and no love for people or music. He’s basically a sociopath, using people to get what he wants, even pretending to have emotions (when he learns of the death of a former student) to trick his students into thinking that he cares about them.
Again, if all of this character development was done to setup the premise that Fletcher was a horrible person and terrible teacher, then I think it could have been a spectacular moment when Andrew has a musical triumph or breakthrough (as result of his own hard-work) and demonstrates to everyone that he achieved IN SPITE of his abusive teacher. Paradoxically, when Andrew has his big musical breakthrough, it is portrayed as justification for all of the horrible abuse he went through, validating Fletcher’s behavior. Class re-dismissed.
OK so he’s a terrible teacher and a bad person. Does that make it a “bad movie?” No. What makes it a bad movie is that it disrespects music educators. It demeans us. It reduces what we love, what we have devoted our lives to, down to bullying. And it says that not only is that OK, but that’s how you get it done at the highest levels. It’s BS.
It is deeply false to suggest that artistic greatness is achieved through fear or coercion. It is equally false that students who are terrified of their teachers can somehow grow into the best versions of themselves. Every effective teacher knows that students can only learn in an environment that is comfortable and controlled. The kind of motivation that leads to greatness is INTRINSIC, and cannot extrinsically come out of fear. Andrew is intrinsically motivated, he WANTS to be great. NOTHING that Fletcher does helps Andrew achieve. I would NEVER behave in this way, not only because I would get fired and likely sued, but because it just DOESN’T WORK. Ever. Even if it did work, nobody would want to join my band because ensemble music is about people, and playing TOGETHER, and the joy of working toward a common goal. It is about creativity and expression, NOT fear. To grow, you must make failure your friend, and learn from it, not live in terror of making a mistake. Especially in Jazz, where improvisation is central to the art form! The students in Fletcher’s Jazz Band are terrified. They take NO RISKS, show NO JOY, NO CREATIVITY. They are basically machines, who play like robots programmed by their control freak professor.
Watch two minutes of any rehearsal at any top university or conservatory. You will see empathy, humanity, self-discipline (not totalitarianism), enthusiasm, determination, and joy. You will see respected (not feared) teachers helping (intrinsically) motivated students to achieve greatness. You won’t see chairs flying, vulgar insulting language and most certainly you won’t see blood. I have been lucky enough to have been the student of many of these outstanding educators, and never once did they demean me or put me down. They often challenged me, and pushed me through encouragement or by reminding me how very capable I was, but never ever tried to manipulate me or use my talent and energy for their gain.
I think that I could have LOVED this movie. I think I could have argued that it was one of the best “music” movies that had even been made… if, at the “big competition” (which is also BS), right when Andrew realized that Fletcher was trying to screw him yet again by calling a chart he was unprepared to play, Andrew stood up, dropped his sticks and walked out.
And the whole band followed.
Because how you treat people will always be more important than achieving “greatness.” So yes, I hated "Whiplash," because when you love something like making music with people, and devote your life to it, and anything (a movie, a person, a secretary of education) insults what you love, it bothers you.