What does it take to be great?

Is it a whiplash across your back? Or J.K. Simmons screaming in your face and questioning the space between your legs?

Scene from Whiplash. Close up of JK Simmons screaming at Miles Teller.
Sony. 2014

Andrew Neiman, played by Miles Teller, is a malleable kid with an otherwise steely resolve.

He goes to NYC’s Schaffer Conservatory to master the art of jazz drumming. Andrew wants to be the next Buddy Rich. Buddy’s like, a great jazz drummer or something.

Now, Andrew is easy to build up. Give him a compliment and he’ll spend the whole day smiling sheepishly and thinking he’s something special.

On the flipside, he’s even easier to break.

Throw a chair over his head and tell him he’s a garbage drummer, he’ll start weeping like a scolded child. Force him to tell his bandmates that he’s upset, and he’ll do just that.

Fletcher, Andrew’s instructor, is anything but a softie.

Nevertheless, Andrew persisted.

The Price of Potential

After the traumatizing clash with Fletcher, Andrew went home to practice his craft.

He listened to Buddy Rich albums for hours and hours on end, to get his tempo down pat.

His fingers blistered and bled as he worked to hone his art. His eyes drooped and sagged from sleepless nights. The bangs in front of his forehead drenched in sweat from the heat of his ambition.

Scene from Whiplash. Miles Teller has bloody hands and a bloody forehead. He's playing the drum kit with excruciating pain.
Sony. 2014

Miles Teller was the face of determination in Whiplash, one of the greatest films of 2014 (dare I say, of all time). Teller was a paragon of never surrendering to ephemeral obstacles.

Sure, Simmons deserved the awards he got but Teller committed himself far more to this project than his co-star.

Fletcher and Neiman made one of the most-compelling cinematic duos in recent memory. Primarily because of the symbolic weight of their relationship.

If a whip was a person, it was Terence Fletcher.

If a lash was person, it was poor, little Andy.

There are two sides to Greatness: The student and the teacher.

Student and Teacher

Talent on its own is a mound of lifeless soil.

The teacher searches for and fertilizes said soil. The teacher ensures the realization of your potential. Such is the purpose of his entire profession.

Photo by Max Fischer on Pexels.com

But what happens when your teacher becomes a genuine enemy? When his sole ambition is not to build you up, but to tear you down?

What happens when it’s not a dearth of passion that ends a dream, but an overabundance of it?

The film’s first half tricks the viewer into expecting a cliched inspirational story about acheiving your dreams.

But it’s not that simple. Life is never that simple.

Storytelling Conventions

Conventional wisdom stipulates that an ever-abundant supply of passion will ascend you to the heavens and beyond.

Andrew went through verbal abuse, put-downs, humiliation, and bleeding hands to become the world’s greatest drummer.

You have to get through Hell before reaching Heaven.

If that wasn’t enough, Andrew went through a literal car wreck just to pick up a pair of misplaced drumsticks (musical drumsticks, not the KFC crap).

He put his well-being on the line just to play at a concert.

Price for greatness, remember?

Scene from Whiplash, after the car wreck with Miles Teller's character.
Sony. 2014

Donning a blood-soaked suit and forehead, Andrew made it to the concert stage. Nothing was going to stop this kid. Nada.

Except his own passion and ambition.

After one put-down too many and losing his spot in the band, Andrew charged at Fletcher, was dragged out cursing his name and subsequently kicked out of Schaffer Conservatory.

There’s a line to everything.

Line to Passion, Line to Abuse

Andrew crossed his line, as Fletcher crossed his.

An ethics complaint filed by a former student’s parents, and corroborated by Andrew, brought Fletcher’s teaching career to a predictable end.

“There are no two words more dangerous than ‘good job’,” Fletcher later explained to Andrew.

After a few drinks at the bar, he offered Andrew a spot in his band. They had a gig the coming weekend to play the old classics he learned at the conservatory.

Scene from Whiplah, Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons sit at the bar and talk.
Sony. 2014

But Andrew had already given up on his dream, due to the damage he inflicted upon himself. He even sacrificed a relationship with a pretty girl just to get to the top.

Since he was left with nothing but a void, Andrew had no other recourse but to return to the path he was on before. He already made peace with Fletcher, didn’t he? What harm could it do? He had genuine support this time around!

Or so he thought.

A Teacher and An Enemy

When Fletcher brought Andrew on stage, he pulled a suprising act of vengeance.

Fletcher opened up the recital with an arrangement that Andrew didn’t rehearse for nor expected.

“I know it was you,” he uttered to Andrew. “I know you testified against me.”

Andrew was about to crash and burn in front of an audience of influential industry insiders. He was about to flop like a fish out of water. A fish sizzling in the sun of Fletcher’s pettiness.

Scene from Whiplash where J.K. Simmons looks at Miles Teller menacingly. Between them is a drum cymbal.
Sony. 2014

Fletcher was no longer his teacher.

Fletcher was now his sworn enemy. A genuine enemy out to destroy his target at all costs.

Andrew could not simply improv his way through a planned arrangement. The music industry insiders had their sights locked on the failure that was Andrew Neiman, prepared to blacklist his name for eternity.

Neiman was ready to submit to his enemy. Accept the fact that he was about to be destroyed.

Or so Fletcher thought.

The Value of an Enemy

Fletcher didn’t anticipate that the only thing more valuable than a teacher …

Is an enemy.

Yes, an enemy is the ultimate obstacle to your dreams and aspirations.

But you need an obstacle to gauge your own strength, commitment, and passion.

If said strength is nonexistent, you will crumble like dust before the obstacle.

Rather than sulk, Andrew got back on the kit and wrested control of the arrangement from his former teacher. He was going to play.

He was going to fight.

Final scene of Whiplash, Miles Teller is playing an improv at the concert.

We get stronger by fighting, not by sitting down and listening to someone else’s lecture.

And best of all, nobody said your enemy will be your enemy forever.

Fight back, show him what you’re made of, and your enemy will buckle.

Your enemy will smile.

And finally, your enemy will become your friend.

Final shot of Whiplash, J.K. Simmons is looking at Miles Teller, starting to smile. His mouth isn't seen but his eyes are starting to wrinkle, indicating a smile.
Sony. 2014

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