Whiplash – jazz or motivation?
Whiplash is an award winning film of the journey of a budding jazz drummer towards brilliance. Set mostly in a rehearsal studio it describes the practice, drive, suffering and pain deemed necessary, by the teacher, to achieve excellence. Whilst in many ways gripping, should we also view its basic premise as deeply disturbing, asks Peter Hudson.
Jazz or Motivation?
The recently released movie, Whiplash, is ostensibly about jazz but in reality about motivation.
The story is about two characters: Andrew Neiman, a drumming student and Terence Fletcher an instructor and leader of the college’s jazz band at a leading American East Coast music conservatory.
The thesis of the film is based on an apocryphal story about the composer and saxophonist, Charlie Parker, arguably one of the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th Century. Jo Jones, the drummer with the Count Basie orchestra, was so annoyed with Parker’s playing off the beat as a very young man, that he threw his cymbal at him. That’s the apocryphal bit – he actually threw the cymbal to the ground; but the effect was that Parker went away feeling so ashamed and disgraced that he practised and practised until he was perfect.
So back to the thesis: shame and frighten someone enough and they’ll become a world beater. In a nutshell this is what happens in the film and Neiman, having really hated how he was treated by Fletcher, plays an amazing drum solo at the end of the film, the message being that Fletcher’s methods had worked! Further, the film dismisses more humane ways of motivation by having Fletcher say that two of the worst words in the English language are ‘Good job!’
As regular readers might imagine, I don’t agree with this form of motivation, not least because, even if it can work from time to time (which I doubt), it can seriously damage people in the process. Whilst the film is clearly brilliantly made and has awards by the dozen, including an Oscar for best supporting actor (the Fletcher character), it is very hard to watch as Fletcher’s treatment of Neiman is clearly bullying in the extreme and, at times, downright abusive.
No one in any profession, and certainly in education, would condone such motivational methods. They would be dismissed instantly if caught. So why write about it at all? I guess it’s a question of relativity: how far is it right and/or efficacious to move into the pushing zone of motivating students? Are such methods better than praise, understanding and listening?
Post Script – for jazz lovers: if Miles Teller, who plays Neiman, really did all the drumming in the film, and he certainly studied the drums, then he probably made the wrong career choice by going into acting! I wonder how he was motivated/taught to become such a brilliant drummer!
Click the image to view the official trailer of Whiplash.