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‘Whiplash’ seeks to distinguish drive from obsession

“Whiplash” (2014). Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist, Nate Lang, Austin Stowell, Damon Gupton, April Grace. Director: Damien Chazelle. Screenplay: Damien Chazelle. Web site. Trailer.

When do we cross the line between ambition and fixation? That can be a difficult call, especially for those of us who are decidedly motivated to achieve highly prized aspirations. It’s a struggle rife with challenges, most notably finding out what’s behind those aims. Those dicey issues are among the key considerations that get played out with gripping intensity in the compelling new drama, “Whiplash.”

Jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) wants to be one of the greats. As a freshman at a fictional New York conservatory, Andrew may be just starting out, but he envisions himself one day joining the ranks of drumming legends like Buddy Rich (1917-1987). And the opportunity to scale those daunting heights comes along surprisingly fast when he captures the attention of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), leader of the school’s premier studio band, who invites him to join the ensemble. Almost overnight, Andrew seems to be on his way.

But Andrew’s big break comes at a cost. Being a member of Fletcher’s band is far more demanding than he ever imagined. As an unrelenting perfectionist accustomed to winning every competition he enters, Fletcher insists on the same level of performance from his students, refusing to accept mistakes or forgive errors. He views every misstep by his musicians as an intolerable act of sabotage. So anyone who wants to play in this elite ensemble must endure the conductor’s intimidating behavior. His taskmaster ways include regular onslaughts of demeaning insults, manipulative mind games, verbal tirades and sometimes even physical abuse.

Fletcher is especially hard on Andrew, who initially feels he’s being unfairly singled out. But, when the new kid buckles down and makes the effort to live up to his potential, he also sees his performance duly rewarded. So, despite these highly questionable conditions, he decides to stick to his commitment.

But how far is Andrew prepared to go? He willingly makes sacrifices, such as abandoning a budding romance to a fellow co-ed (Melissa Benoist), to make more time for his music. Still, no matter what Andrew does, his efforts never seem to be enough. Despite Andrew’s accomplishments, Fletcher continually ups the ante on him, placing ever-greater demands on his time, talent, patience and perseverance. What’s more, Fletcher’s ploys are so scurrilous at times that they even jeopardize Andrew’s relationships with his fellow band mates (Nate Lang, Austin Stowell). And, when some particularly shocking revelations about the conductor surface, Andrew must make some difficult choices about his future. He must truthfully ask himself, “How badly do I want to achieve my goal?” But, even more importantly, he must also decide, “Can I live with my actions?”

As both Andrew and Fletcher seek to realize their goals, they must each address a key concern – the difference between being driven and being obsessed. There’s a fine line between the two, but the primary determiner is the matter of intent – and the conscious creation beliefs that underlie it, because those notions will ultimately determine how matters unfold and what experiences materialize.

For both student and teacher, it’s fairly obvious what they want to achieve. As noted previously, Andrew is eager to become one of the greats, and Fletcher undeniably wants to be the best at his craft. But, in attaining those goals, there’s the even greater question of how.

In becoming experts at what they do, Andrew and Fletcher must transcend themselves, exceeding their expectations and pushing their perceived limits of their capabilities. Andrew, as a neophyte performer, has a vague idea of what that entails, but his lack of experience – both in practical terms as a professional drummer and metaphysically as one who manifests his destiny – keeps him from seeing exactly what that takes. By contrast, Fletcher, as a seasoned and successful professional, has a much better idea of what’s required, but reaching the pinnacle of his aspirations involves getting the most out of his musicians (particularly his star performers), an achievement that he feels has always eluded him. Attaining those transcendent goals is possible, but it may call for measures neither of them has previously considered, taking steps that go beyond what they’re accustomed to. The question is, though, can they successfully realize their respective goals while remaining true to their intents? Or will they resort to actions and behaviors aimed at fulfilling their objectives at any cost?

To live up to his potential. Andrew obviously needs to be pushed, and attracting a taskmaster into his life can help him achieve that goal (hence Fletcher’s presence in his life). Meanwhile, to fulfill his objective as an expert band leader, Fletcher must have outstanding, impressionable musicians (like Andrew) following his baton. But at what point does challenging, inspired tutelage become an exercise in tyrannical scholarship? When does a receptive student become an unwitting, complicit victim? Indeed, when does focused effort transform into blind ambition?

In circumstances when the ends begin to blur our perceptions of the means, we slip into the practice of un-conscious creation or creation by default, where realizing outcomes overshadows the ways we achieve them. As Andrew and Fletcher proceed with their respective endeavors, they wrestle with this consideration, struggling to find the right balance between drive and obsession and to come up with appropriate beliefs for doing so.

Understanding the motivations behind our goals can help tremendously in assessing our beliefs and intents. For instance, much of Andrew’s drive for success comes in response to the failure of his father (Paul Reiser) to fulfill his objective as a successful writer, an unrealized dream that contributed to his parents’ separation at a young age. At the same time, Fletcher has always wanted for one of his students to be a true jazz virtuoso, one who could deliver performances as memorable as those turned in by the likes of Charlie “Bird” Parker (1920-1955). But, again, in realizing these goals, student and teacher must ask themselves, “How far will I go?” and “What am I willing to do?” Answers to these questions, in turn, will significantly influence what beliefs form in response.

In formulating appropriate beliefs, it’s crucial that we pay attention to our true selves, to operate from a sense of personal integrity. If we try to fudge our efforts at this, or, even worse, if we actively disregard this aspect of our character, we set ourselves up for trouble. Andrew and Fletcher must avoid this pitfall, too, if they hope to achieve their goals – and to spare themselves consequences they’d rather avoid.

“Whiplash” is an intensely captivating story involving subject matter that, at first glance, wouldn’t seem to lend itself to such treatment. The story is made all the more intense by its spirited, upbeat score and its superb film editing. Director Damien Chazelle, a Queer Palm nominee at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, has turned in a fine effort in his first major production, giving moviegoers much to look forward to in his future works.

But what truly makes this picture is its stellar acting. Simmons gives a career performance, one that allows him to finally showcase his considerable (and long-underrated) talent and that stands him in good stead as a strong awards season contender. Teller, meanwhile, finally shows us what he’s capable of, far outshining his previously underwhelming efforts in films like “Rabbit Hole” (2010) and “The Spectacular Now” (2013). The chemistry between these two leads is spot-on authentic, too, making for a captivating character study of two highly charged protagonists.

The drive for success is something many of us truly value, but at what price? Gaining a healthy perspective on this issue, both for our own benefit and that of others, is crucial to achieve this objective without causing undue harm to ourselves or those around us. “Whiplash” draws that question into sharp focus, showing us how to keep its potentially adverse ramifications from snapping back and inflicting harm on us in our pursuit of living up to the potential we’re all capable of.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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