Growing up as I did – white, privileged, suburban – it became readily apparent that even before I could walk, I would not run. I would try, yes, but just as surely, I would fail. Unfurled before me, like a banner of ineptitude, sat a life of the most depressing certainty: fourth place ribbons, condescending back pats, the occasional pitying shrug, and more moral victories than any one boy should have to endure. Where some watched Chariots of Fire and found the beach of their own inspiration, I sat brooding in the shadows, convinced I could either fake my way through life, or rule a kingdom of one from the most comfortable chair available. Some sought honor, glory, sacrifice; I preferred the path of, well, no resistance whatsoever. A man for all seasons became a boy of no account, and wherever adventure loomed, I would ensure that we never so much as made eye contact. Sure, I avoided the usual wounds of a life on the edge, but I was free. Expectations, after all, are the true killer. I might, but the odds suggested I most certainly might not. As such, I became good at nothing in particular. Oh, sure, my grades were great, often remarkable, and my old neighborhood still speaks of my legendary, decade-plus stretch of perfect attendance, but nothing truly unique stood out. My mastery, then, was a bottomless pit of nil.
If I dared suit up for the battlefield of sport, I was more likely to be benched for the big game than responsible for any real heroics. If I lusted for recognition, notoriety, or the whispered roar of building fame, my ambitions were quickly tempered by the genetic mandate that ambitions were themselves as improbable as snatching a kiss from that cute redhead who never so much as learned my name. Stay put, son, and feast on a resentment that burns brighter than the sun. And then there was music. Its gifts seemed to percolate through the family’s assorted branches like a lifeblood, predictably fading to a mere trickle by the time I needed something to set me apart from the furniture. Grandmothers could sing, others could play piano, I could bang a stick on an empty wastebasket. Not that I didn’t make absolutely sure, mind you, but after a half-dozen drum lessons with a slovenly, open-robed slice of flab I was certain would molest me around session nine, I was forced to try guitar. And while this teacher remained fully clothed, he expected me (twice a week!) to reach his unbearable, Cool Hand Luke hot box of an unventilated room after climbing no fewer than 16,000 stairs. Even then, I never went beyond “Smoke on the Water.” It was all over, well before it had even begun.
And that brings us to Whiplash; a frenetic, ballsy tribute to single-mindedness so assured, so blissfully focused, that it damn near makes you forget that for every expert, there is a trail of shattered lives who dared interrupt that road to greatness. For Andrew (Miles Teller) is great – a phenom, perhaps – and while he flirts with Asperger’s (at best, severe social dysfunction), he has the self-awareness to understand that if one is to be truly recognized in this life, other people are almost always going to get in the way. It’s the customary tale of woe we all recognize; standing apart means standing alone, and all responsibility lies with the outsiders who fight for a scrap of the virtuoso in question. It is, then, forever on his terms, and you’re going to have to be content with waiting by the phone for further instructions. On its face, it seems the loneliest of lives, but only a fool wouldn’t gaze upon it all with unquenchable envy. To be that lost in one’s gift; not some pathetic obsession like collecting, hoarding, or memorizing trivia, but a world of undeniable, world-weary consequence. Where one’s labors produce not a look of confusion, but supreme deference and awe. To have the unending days and nights of toil yield not simply to applause, but utter incredulity. To a sense that here, now, it has been done for all time. Further efforts are simply superfluous.
That is Andrew’s goal. Not simply to make a living, or be in a band, or win a medal at some competition, but to become so synonymous with his talents that to speak of the man is to be surrounded by undying bliss. Where biography dares not intrude on the magic. And so he plays. And plays. Comes early, stays late. Bleeds for his craft because he has little else. In truth, that little has evolved into even less. Nothing, to be frank. It’s living the dream as only a dream can be lived, at the dizzying expense of sea and sky. Pause for humanity, and you’re overtaken. Damn such fanaticism at your peril, lest you face the real consequences of its absence. Anything worth doing is done at the extremes, and only the best will do. Consider the lesson of the volcanic Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). In some ways, the standard asshole of the piece, but no less remarkable for his indispensability. Cliched, tight-shirted drill sergeant, you say? Perhaps, but he delves further: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.” In one clean sweep, he blasts away a generation of weepy, self-styled martyrs who left us with further inclusion, yes, but little by way of actual achievement. Mediocrity, then, that suffocating, all-consuming element of a people in crisis, is the one and only result when the chains are placed on the frontrunners.
If that sounds suspiciously like the Libertarian Party platform, you’d be right, though context, as always, brings clarity. A man can build an ungodly building, but I’m still going to tax it. A system of trains? Regulate it to the point of madness. A complex, interwoven system of profit and pain? Slap it with a surcharge until it begs forgiveness. Genius needs elbow room to create, but said creation, once unleashed, is not exempt from society’s whims. Andrew, for example, might turn jazz on its head – and he will, if left unchecked by the sentimentalists – but it’s not like his music has a right to exist from that point forward. After all, a gavel’s not about to come down insisting that his latest piece fill up Carnegie Hall. Attendance will not be mandatory. For as the creative class, monstrous always on the upward climb, has earned a right to sit at its own table, the rest of us can put that table out on the patio at any time. Brilliance, then, is owed nothing, unlike the Ayn Rand fanatics who’d prefer we erect marble monuments to the art of slathering their asses with the slobber of hero-worship. Not here. Andrew is admirable in all the ways that make life worth living, but the rest of us are no less right for despising his company.
But if Whiplash sounds like prize porn or simply the latest paean to the eccentricities of performing arts poofters, it’s important to note that for every contrivance (and there are a few, dammit), there is a wall of separation between the audience and the characters onscreen. Normally, shading and backstory are crucial to enjoyment (as well as coherence), but here, they would simply force a psychological stance that isn’t really necessary. Yes, we get a flake of insight now and again, but while we’re watching a young man destroy himself before us in order to achieve much-needed rebirth, would it help to know mommy wasn’t affectionate? During that last, inhuman number – still one of the best endings to a movie I’ve seen in quite some time – would it have resonated that much more if we had witnessed the bullying from grade school? Again, as we’re in the realm of the narrow – a man’s direct line, no detours – why sully the project with side notes? The kid plays drums, nothing more, and for the film’s purpose, that’s everything. Do one thing, do it better than anyone else, and check the fuck out. His dream and mine, only he’ll drop from Herculean effort, rather than stasis.
But if one can’t see fit to recognize Whiplash as one of the year’s best for its ode to obsession alone, turn instead to its equally brash conclusion that the only teacher worth a damn is one that nearly (or fully, in one case) drives a student to suicide. Yes, it’s common knowledge that we love our educators fuzzy and cuddly in the tradition of Mr. Chips, but what of the one who truly lacks a warm and gooey center? The man – yes, always a man, as we’d laugh a female inspiration right out of her bloomers – who threatens, roars, cajoles, and browbeats not because he himself is damaged (or waiting for the third act turn), but rather out of a desire to bring forth greatness? Lest that sound like Hallmark goodness, consider that Fletcher’s motivations are purely selfish. For if they speak of Andrew in hushed tones, they are just as likely to revere the man behind the throne. A reputation secured on both ends. But that’s what it takes. Sweet and forgiving lead to fruitless endeavor, not the stuff of legend. Assholes tend to achieve at a higher rate of return, but only because they’re helped along by other assholes. Consider that a lesson for the kids that might actually stick. Andrew gets it. Which is why he’ll always be the one on stage.