Context / preamble:
I watched this movie because it was the most voted “what shall we watch next” movie in my TV group on Facebook.
I didn’t do any background reading, I didn’t research the movie. I went in almost blind – except that I saw the poster, I saw it was JK Simmons as some sort of music teacher coaching a drummer, who looked like a young Christian Bale (turned out to be Miles Teller, the guy who was really good at being an annoying kid on Divergent).
It’s not the most pleasant or enjoyable movie watching experience – it’s quite a tense, stressful movie. It’s a challenging movie. It’s not meant to be super cathartic, though it kind of is.
I didn’t find out until after watching the movie that it was written and directed by Damien Chazelle, the same guy who wrote and directed La La Land. It’s an interesting contrast, two different stories from the perspective of a filmmaker who, unsurprisingly, had a bit of a background in jazz drums.
As with La La Land, there are some pretty cool technical achievements in the musicality of the filmmaking in Whiplash. Is that a pretentious thing to say? I mean that there’s a rhythm to the cuts, and I’m guessing his musical background has a significant role to play in that. (Does the director of a film… oversee the cuts? Looks like she does, but she may not have the final cut.) I liked the music choices and all those little things.
Now, let’s focus on talking about story. At its heart, the story is about two people – the student and the teacher. The student is ambitious in a sort of simple, maybe even naive way. He wants to be one of the greats, and he’s willing to suffer and sacrifice for it.
The teacher, it seems to me, is a caricature. He’s this sort of sociopathic asshole who believes that saying “good job” makes students complacent and lazy.
This seems to be a common myth or story perpetuated about all sorts of managers. Alex Ferguson. Steve Jobs. Jeff Bezos. Elon Musk. They’re all often portrayed as these maniacal, terrifying figures. Chefs, like Gordon Ramsay. They have some vision that they want, and anybody who doesn’t fit perfectly into that vision will be yelled at, insulted, diminished, attacked, bullied, gaslighted, assaulted until they fit in or give up.
I believe that practically every depiction of these leaders as assholes is oversimplistic. Because hardly anybody really wants to work for a feckless thug. They might have their thuggish moments, but if they really want to lead, they also need to inspire devotion.
I find myself thinking of my own boss, who is uncompromising on his standards and his expectations – one of his favorite sayings is “Reality doesn’t give a shit” – and yet he’s also fundamentally a decent, understanding person. He listens. He asks questions. Another one of his common sayings is “just out of curiosity…” – he truly believes that if you want to achieve great results, you’re going to have to understand the cause-and-effect relationships of everything that goes into the process. And great managers, I believe, do that. I believe Steve Jobs was like that – it shows in the way he talks about his products. If you read his early interviews, he can explain how computers work to a great degree of precision. He understands businesses and markets and all sorts of things that you’d never hear him talk about at a product presentation. I can’t imagine why this wouldn’t extend to his employees, too. He has these extensive quotes about how the process of making a product is magic. If you care about that, then you’re going to have to care about the people involved in the process. You’re going to want to keep them challenged, but also excited, motivated, committed, eager and so on.
So there are a few things I want to talk about specifically:
- The part where Fletcher (the teacher) tells Andrew (the student) about the tough, challenging relationship between musicians before bringing him into his band. It seems implied here that Fletcher is preemptively telling Andrew about the sound beating he’s going to give him, to push him to grow and learn as a student. You could say that this is a sort of negotiation, a promise – that Andrew is being told what to expect from their relationship. But consider the following:
- (SPOILER) Fletcher’s emotional moment when playing his ex-student’s music for his band. I believe that his sadness is legitimate – he’s truly moved and upset about the fact that his student died. That said, he also lied. He lied and said that the student died in a car accident, instead of saying that the student committed suicide. Why? Did he feel guilty, ashamed, responsible? It’s unclear. But he didn’t want to be associated with it. He didn’t have the balls to say, “I pushed that kid really hard, and it may have driven him to kill himself.” He was lying to his students, maybe to himself. If he is truly sincere about his worldview – that it’s necessary to push musicians hard so that diamonds are created in the pressure – I think he should also be honest about the costs. So there is a hypocrisy or a dishonesty here. I would respect him more if he was honest about it.
- Fletcher bringing Andrew into the JVC band, and then humiliating him by getting the band to play a song he didn’t know – how’s that supposed to help him? How’s that supposed to help anybody? How does that serve the show? It’s just petty, petulant, selfish, myopic, cruel, sadistic. In that moment I feel that Fletcher is so fixated on being an asshole that he’s willing to cut his nose to spite his face. This is not the mark of a good leader, to me. This is a clear and glaring character flaw.
- At some point, Fletcher said to Andrew that “you can’t go too far, because a real great musician wouldn’t be discouraged”. That’s a convenient thing to think, and say. How the fuck does he know? What right does he have to say that, when he’s never actually spawned genius? Genius seems to me a much more fragile thing. I think the guys at Pixar have it right. You need to nourish it. You need to challenge it, but you also need to nourish it.
I’m glad I watched Whiplash because it clarified for me what leadership is and what it isn’t. What mentorship is and what it isn’t. And what sort of person I want to be towards younger people. The movie shows us Andrew ultimately giving a fuck you to his mentor, and the mentor actually being surprised and kind of turned on by it – the student’s defiance leads to some sort of genuine musical gestalt. In that moment Fletcher ceases to be an asshole, and they serve the music together. It’s kind of a perfect happy ending (in the moment), though it seems probable to me that Fletcher will then frame the whole thing as a victory or validation of his own school-of-hard-knocks theory, and that Andrew will continue to develop a sort of unhealthy attachment towards his abusive teacher.
There are a bunch of things about the show itself that slightly annoyed me, about the conceptualization of music itself as a pursuit, as a craft. It’s weird to me that Andrew doesn’t seem to jam with other musicians on his own, write his own music, study or analyze music apart from whatever he’s supposed to play. There’s this obsession with speed – which music is hardly ever about. Playing faster doesn’t make you a better musician. If Andrew was serious about being One Of The Greats, maybe he should’ve read up about what the Greats were actually doing. But that’s not what this movie is about, I can see that. This movie is really about what an abusive mentor is like.
I’d kind of be curious to learn more about Fletcher’s character. His childhood, his experiences, how he came to be so respected, what his favorite music is, what his parents were like, that sort of thing.
I believe leaders should have vision, be clear about what they want, and push and challenge their people hard – but that doesn’t mean knocking them down and teabagging them over and over again while they’re down. Nurturing talent, nurturing greatness, is less simple than that.