No Bird? A Film Review

03/04/2015 06:45 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2015

In this story, Whiplash, jazz teacher Terrence Fletcher nurses a core belief in the myth that it was only after escaping decapitation by a cymbal thrown in anger at his head that Charlie Parker became the Bird. That it was out of this ultimate threat to his very life that the phoenix who was to become the jazz great was born. No cymbal, no Bird. Hence, for Terrence, the sadistic need to inflict emotional humiliation and physical suffering on the young man, Andrew, an aspiring drummer, who becomes his student and the target of his deepest inner reserves of wrath.

Whether or not you subscribe to the essentially Romantic belief that greatness comes from suffering, Whiplash is a compelling teacher/student story and an intense study of the discipline and training that it takes to become a top-ranked musician. At its heart is the question: do you have to give up literally everything else in life in order to achieve greatness as an artist? It's what Andrew has been led to believe; he acts out increasingly as an arrogant and pompously self-important jerk, much in need of the lessons in humility that his teacher is eager to hand out. His own ultimate humiliation comes when he is invited to perform in front of the most important audience of his life, only to find himself seated at his drum kit without script or score and with no prior knowledge of the piece he's being required to play. Forced to improvise, he fails; but out of failure is born a renewed determination to succeed -- leading to the "Bird" performance of his lifetime.

We learn little of the source of Fletcher's sadism. We see him mostly angry, impossibly demanding, insatiable. He yells at his students, verbally assails and insults them, crushes their ambitions, leaves them trembling and in some cases utterly destroyed in his wake. We learn that his ambition is to force them to transcend their self-limitations, to go beyond what they believe to be possible and to fly eventually like the Bird who is his hero and his mentor. But we are also led to believe that he is not, himself, the Bird he would have wished to be. When we see him play, at last, in a downtown New York jazz club, he seems to be a competent but not inspired pianist. He excels only as the conductor of other musicians -- a skill he scorns as the mere ability to wave his arms about and waggle his fingers at the band.

In this way, we come to suspect that Terrence's perverted drive is to live his lost personal ambitions through his students -- and none of them quite live up to his exacting standards of perfection. The roots of his motivation remain unexplored, but his refusal to face up to some painful inner truths about himself is revealed in the lie he tells his band in the one scene where he allows himself to betray some emotion other than rage: that his star student -- a horn player who went on to brilliant success -- had been killed in a car accident. Only later do we learn that in fact the student died by his own hand, hanging himself in a desperate act of surrender and despair. It's a tragedy for which Terrence is unwilling to contemplate responsibility, though his reluctantly shed tears suggest inner acknowledgment.

I was captivated by this movie, even though I felt that there was a certain dishonesty in its message. The final, tacit, eye-to-eye acknowledgment of mutual forgiveness and respect between student and teacher seemed to suggest a confirmation that it had all been worthwhile, all the pain and suffering, the humiliation and rejection; that this was the true path to an artist's education, as though it were rooted in aesthetic necessity rather than in the twisted emotional history of this particular teacher -- a history we were never privileged to learn. Still, with outstanding performances and spot-on camera work and direction, I found this to be a film of unusual quality and depth.