Perfectionism, grace and drums – Undercurrents in Whiplash

Several years ago, I asked a Chinese friend why only one of her elite post-doctoral group of pure mathematicians were from the UK. The answer I got was shocking. “I have a daughter in primary school in Scotland, and you do not understand education here. Most of what my daughter does in school is play; her academic work is constantly interrupted by parties, games, outings, assemblies; and the school day is so short. In China at that age, I studied maths every day at school and for many hours before and after school too – here it is all play, play, play!”

I was confronted with the question: what price is worth paying for perfection?

Whiplash is a film about individuals being crushed by the relentless drive for greatness in a particular field. It could have been maths, or sport; but the film is set in the world of jazz – in which the key figure Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller) is a drummer. The pressure to become “one of the greats” is certainly an internal drive for Neiman; but is taken from obsession to destructive levels by his teacher Terence Fletcher (J. K Simmons), whose drive for perfection destroys students. Perhaps worse still, Fletcher seems convinced that his students must be broken repeatedly to push them beyond ordinary human limitations. “The two most dangerous words in the English language are, “good job”” he notes. As such, Fletcher’s teaching method not only demanded iron discipline and technical excellence, but also involved a form of psychological warfare against his students. Films have occasionally shown army recruits being broken in this way; but rarely with the ferocity which Simmons brings to the part of Terence Fletcher.

The two central performances in Whiplash, are superb. Teller is excellent as the driven, intense, gifted, yet vulnerable young drummer; who learns to confront his demons both inner and external. Simmons is truly horrific as the dangerously out-of-control Fletcher, who values winning and perfection above people. Simmons’ viciously foul-mouthed and blisteringly intense denunciations of errant students is like something from the Maoist cultural revolution; it is gruelling watching – but impossible to turn away from. In Fletcher’s world, if he destroys fifty people, but makes one genius, he’s a happy man. Like all the best movie villains, Terence Fletcher makes compelling viewing. In one scene (spoiler alert!), Fletcher weeps over the death of a student – a great player who he had ‘broken’ and made legendary. “He was a beautiful player”, laments the teacher. We later discover that the young man had killed himself – the parents blaming Fletcher for the psychological torment he endured at his hands. Yet still, even as Fletcher appears to show some normal human warmth, or even vulnerability his words are chilling. “He was a beautiful player”, seems to suggest that Fletcher wept not for the loss of a person, but for the loss of his talent.

The film leaves us with an ambiguous conclusion; on one hand Nieman finally emerges as a great drummer; and gains the respect of his fellow musicians and his sinister teacher. However, we are left with a question mark. Would he have achieved such greatness without Fletcher’s psychological battering, or would he have consigned himself to a more contented mediocrity? Leaving aside the much-debated issue of whether practice-makes-genius or not; the issue here is – what price is it worth paying in pursuit of a goal?

Neiman is shown giving up on most aspects of what it means to have a normal balanced life; he has no friends, has given up on sport, and loses his girl in his thirst for perfection. He ends up as a specialist, but with a malformed life. These questions are pertinent in parenting and education. We may not be as extreme as Fletcher; but when is it right to push our kids; and when is it right to let them just meander along contentedly? Are our schools so fearful of the kind of Fletcher-dynamic depicted in Whiplash that they fail to inculcate any kind of love of excellence in our children at all? “Gold-stars all round – and who cares what mark you actually scored?!”

Central to the almost unbearable dynamic of this film is the way that the master propels the apprentice towards perfection under the constant threat of rejection. Being the ‘core player’ in the music school’s prestige band was an honour entirely at the disposal of Fletcher and expulsion from the band something he could execute on a whim. The film depicts the pursuit of perfection as the ideal of greatness and significance; but it also portrays a self-destructive fear of rejection as the necessary stimulus for its achievement. This seems to leave us in an impossible dilemma in that either greatness doesn’t matter on one hand, or that people don’t on the other.

This is a remarkable example of what we might term “un-grace”.

In contrast, relationships which are founded on the concept of grace, (rather than accomplishments) work in exactly the opposite way to the dynamic between Fletcher and Nieman. In grace-founded relationships, (be they human-human, or Divine-human), the pursuit of greatness, is predicated upon the foundation of compete acceptance of the person; which in turn produces a mutual striving towards what is good. The force that propels the student (or disciple) forward, is not the fear of rejection and humiliation from behind (as with Fletcher); but the embrace of the other willing them forward towards a beautiful conclusion. That could be a parent leading a child towards career goals, but we also see it in the Christian story of God embracing us ;ole a Father- and leading us towards holiness, purity, and Christlikeness.

Grace is the very idea that meticulously high standards and goals are not to be lowered, but that people are to be loved and valued even while those high standards are being worked towards. The fear of rejection is not the great stimulus to progress; but the grasping of a magnificent vision is.

Whiplash is a great film which unsurprisingly won prizes at The Sundance Film Festival upon its release in 2014, followed by five academy award nominations. The plot is intriguing, the dialogue alarming, and the acting intense and frightening. Allegedly based on the author’s real experiences at a leading American musical college; it demonstrates the nature of abusive power-relationships, where the people are forgotten in the pursuit of some goal or accomplishment. Simmons’ searing portrayal of Fletcher will remain the most poignant memory of Whiplash, and a sombre reminder of how ugly humanity looks when we use people to serve things, rather than things to serve people.

I am intrigued when I speak to people who imagine that God looks something like Terence Fletcher. After all, God is perfect and demands perfection – and is a judge who offers both rewards and punishments. Mercifully though that is where the comparison ends. The Christian faith says that God will embrace and accept us as we are, to then lead us towards perfection. He doesn’t lower His standards but lifts us towards them. Most remarkably of all, at the cross of Christ we see that the person who gets broken to achieve that is Him and not us. There is a price worth paying for perfection, and the message of grace is that that Christ has paid it for us. The genius of Whiplash is that it shows us what perfection without grace would look like, how destructive that would be and how much we need it in human relationships but ultimately from God.

Whiplash is available on DVD, and is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.