Serious drama of a New York music school student drummer seeking greatness and his verbally abusive politically incorrect mentor who pushes him beyond his limits.
Hollywood is narcissistic and self-infatuated with the importance of artists and their art. From Sunset Boulevard to A Star is Born to Birdman, we are constantly exposed to the inner and outer turmoil of the artist obsessed with success, excellence, meaning and purpose. Hollywood portrays artistic “genius” as often “misunderstood” or “destroyed” by a morally traditional society (The Invisible Woman, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Surviving Picasso), or artists as “ahead of their time” and missed by a conventional world (Basquiat), or as suffering saviors (Bright Star, Vincent and Theo). There are now so many movies and TV series of the insane but beloved creative world of Hollywood, you could name a new genre “Hollyweird” (The Player, Barton Fink, The Big Picture, Tropic Thunder, Adaptation, Mulholland Drive, Entourage, Ed Wood etc.)
Look, I’m biased, because I’m one of those obsessive artists, so I find a lot in those stories that I resonate with. But there is much that I am also repulsed by, such as the self-destruction of many artists, or their rationalization of narcissism, decadence, and deviance.
But let’s be honest, the heart and soul of the artist in many of these stories can be a powerful microcosm of the macrocosm of all our lives. The pursuit of beauty and excellence in art is a metaphor for the significance we are all seeking in different ways. Whether, nurse, lawyer, plumber, cop, writer, janitor, athlete, or housewife, many seek excellence in what they do because they know that doing it well results in something good. Everyone wants to be connected to something of significance.
Beauty has a certain sense of meaning to it. It frees us from our self-delusions of rationalism and empiricism. Beauty points toward meaning that exists above or beyond our mundane scientific existence that only ends in death. (atheist naturalism and scientific materialism are philosophical cults of death). Beauty implies transcendence. Which is why so many artists, including Hollywood artists, worship beauty as a false idol substitute for the living God.
Whiplash is a thoughtful portrayal of an artist seeking beauty and excellence that reminds me of the double edged sword of the pursuit of great art.
Andrew is a freshman drumming student at a New York conservatory of music. He gets “discovered” by a mentor instructor, Fletcher (played with real heart and soul by J.K. Simmons), who leads the coveted jazz ensemble that wins all the competitions and leads to a hopeful future. The problem is, Fletcher is a verbally abusive, trash-talking, politically incorrect hammer on his students. He treats them sometimes so irrationally harsh, they have no idea how to change or be better because he seems arbitrary or impossible in his demands to match “his tempo.”
Fletcher is nice to Andrew for exactly one moment and then launches into an unending tirade of belittling because he sincerely believes that the only way to achieve greatness in music is to push people beyond their limits. His quintessential example repeated throughout the movie, is that jazz musician Charlie Parker only became great because Joe Jones threw a cymbal at his head when he first played poorly for him. Fletcher says, it was that which caused Charlie to go back and practice so hard that he became “the Bird” because of it.
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