ANDREW NEIMAN: BEING SET FOR PAYING THE COST
A cavernous space. Sound-proofed walls. And in the center, a DRUM SET. Seated at it, in a sweat-marked white T, eyes zeroed on his single-stroke roll, is ANDREW NEIMAN. He’s 19, slight, honors-student-skinny — except for his arms, which have been built from years and years of drumming.
Every notable story is based on the journey of its key characters through changes and severities. The very first glimpse of Andrew Neiman uses no words but visual and sound means to draw the character’s starting point around. It is worth noting that the music, particularly the drums, takes precedence of the protagonist himself and jazz appears to be another main character of the story, just as much important as Andrew Neiman or Terence Fletcher. The nineteen-year-old kid goes before the audience while training along in the empty conservatory auditorium in the late hours. For obvious reasons, he has no means to practice at the dormitory and this late practice has probably become a desired fact of life for Andrew. That first distanced shot from the perspective of the hallway not only reveals the most important thing in the character’s life but also defines his loneliness. In the sequence following his first acquaintance with a future mentor, Andrew is depicted as a destitute dot against the background of the evening city, which absorbs him being unknown and unfamed to anyone except his father and a few family members. As the story would show later, such an obscure opening presentation gives a lead to the whole movie. Being a jazz star works poorly with glory and wide recognition and fits well in dark auditoriums and bars.
AVOIDING THE MEDIOCRITY. In actual terms, toward the beginning of the Whiplash story, Andrew Neiman has already come a long way. From the son of a middle-class teacher to the student of the most recognized music school in the United States. A brief glimpse of an old home video shows a child Andrew already absorbed by a passion for playing drums. The greatest majority of his peers in age would be satisfied with such an accomplishment (passing into Shaffer Conservatory), a chance for them to get a job as a musician in some half-empty New York bar. At the same time, a prestigious Shaffer Conservatory is not a goal in itself for Andrew but only a tool similar to his drumsticks, a starting point in his journey to greatness. Jumping a little bit ahead toward Andrew’s father, it is reasonable to say that Mr. Neiman has never been a role model for his son. Andrew never says it openly but he in some way disregards his father: a middle-aged divorced man (or widower), who has neither become a writer nor made something bigger than his life as a teacher. Mr. Neiman’s brightest moments in life are infrequent family dinners with the family of his brother and going to the cinema with Andrew. Jim Neiman is slightly recognizable even in their middle-class environment: he is an ‘average man’, a mediocre model, Andrew himself never wants to become.
Regardless of all his ambitions for greatness since early childhood, at the beginning of the story, Andrew Neiman is a vulnerable character, mostly unconfident in all regarding contact with other people. At this point, he has not yet drawn a dividing line between himself and the surrounding people, whom he perceives as a distraction toward greatness. On some level, Andrew keeps a balance in his life between studying music and his dream on the one hand and a kind of a ‘normal life’ on the other. While he has no peers to call friends, the protagonist spends time with his father: they frequently visit the cinema and from time to time have dinner together. He leaves his comfort zone and establishes probably the first relationship with a girl in his nineteen years of life. At this point in time, Andrew’s ambitions in music have not yet absorbed all his thoughts to be established as the only meaningful direction. Throughout the whole movie until the climax scene, Andrew would be depicted in semi-shadow. He admits to Nicole that it is generally difficult for him to make eye contact with other people. Even his movements, posture, clothing, and facial expression: all served as an indicator of low self-esteem.
One may assume that jazz has always been only a means for Andrew to break through mediocrity but he is indeed in love with music. Although the becoming of Andrew Neiman as a drummer is left beyond the story (except for some commentaries and old video footage), it is important to say that jazz cultivates such determination. In Andrew’s worldview, in contrast to the other music genre, jazz relies on superordinary individualities, virtuosos of their craft, lonely geniuses, and Charlie Parkers who are abandoned by society but rewarded in a small world of jazz. In strong contrast with his peers, Andrew passed into Shaffer not to find himself: he has made this choice years ago and in this sense, he is far more dedicated to music and building his career, than his classmates at Shaffer Conservatory or Nicole in building her life, or his father Jim. As the story goes on, such a determination will play a cruel joke on Andrew once he draws a red line between himself and the people around him.
DEDICATION AND BLOOD. An encounter with a music teacher Terence Fletcher makes Andrew go to the extreme. While at the beginning of the story it seems over much for a nineteen-year-old student to invest evening hours into practicing drum playing, as early as 31 minutes Andrew moves his mattress to the music practicing room in order to have access to the drums all day and night long. His bloody fingers are not something special for him anymore: a visual metaphor of complete devotion to a chosen craft. Years before getting acquainted with Fletcher, Andrew had a strong belief that he could achieve greatness by practicing toward exhaustion. Although it ruins his relations with other people, his single-mindedness and dedication indeed make Andrew Neiman a better jazz musician. While his classmates come to the classroom exactly at 9 a.m. and leave it with the bell, leaving the music behind the door, Andrew steadily loses his connection with the real world as he dedicates himself completely. The Whiplash movie explained that the pursuit of greatness and dreams may not only motivate us and give us a purpose in life but cultivate a feeling of loneliness and isolation. The idea is that the more insistent we establish ourselves above the majority or mediocrity, the more we separate ourselves from others, and the more lonely and anxious we feel. In wider means, even before teaching in Fletcher’s class, Andrew was ready to sacrifice his connection with the other people because, in fact, he had never had such.
He’s laughed off-stage. Cries himself to sleep that night. But the next morning, what does he do? He practices. And practices and practices.
Apart from an emotional desolation, which Andrew has probably experienced for the larger half of his life, now he goes through anxiety, fear, and trauma that are only intensified under Fletcher’s mentorship. The Whiplash movie explains the correlation between dedication and physical pain. As I have already mentioned above, the blood on his fingers (he plays so harshly that uses ice water to soften pain) serves as a powerful visual symbol. Academically, the amount of sweat on Andrew’s face and blood on his fingers does not directly correlate with his level of mastery in playing drums but these symbols metaphorize his commitment to his craft. As the story develops, we could see multiple close-up shots of the protagonist who literally overbears physical pain. All those types of pain for Andrew serve as his guiding stars in becoming ‘great’ or even the ‘greatest’. The movie goes so far that a musical instrument, which serves as joy and delight to millions of people, a non-committal hobby, gives Andrew Neiman both physical and mental suffering. It is revealing to recall the scene when Andrew, in his pursuit to be the greatest and retrieve his drumsticks, gets in a car accident. His face, now beyond the fingertips, is covered with blood as well, yet this obstacle does not stop the protagonist. In a wider sense, he disregards his own safety and other people in order to become a better drummer.
A year later he goes back to Reno, and he plays the best motherfucking solo the world had ever heard.
THE MENTOR. All while at the beginning of the story Andrew already was lonely, ambitious, and passionate, it is the mentorship of Fletcher, that pursued him toward the edge. Despite verbal and even physical bullying and abuse of his students, Fletcher’s approval means everything to Andrew. My belief is that the general overestimation of the antagonist character in ‘Whiplash’ is a half-truth. For Andrew, a harsh abusive mentor serves as a definite method to maltreat himself, a tool, an obstacle he needs to overcome. It is true that Andrew Neiman has never faced anyone like Terence Fletcher before, yet he sincerely believes that Fletcher can make a great musician out of him, a pursuit Andrew never had from his father or previous teachers. Being absorbed with success stories from the past (as it turns out to be, warped), Andrew takes Fletcher’s mentorship as an integral part of jazz history. If he wants to become another Charlie Parker, Andrew needs his Jo Jones, who would throw a cymbal at his head. Terence Fletcher is just another level of commitment and dedication for Neiman: he must not break under Fletcher’s abusive methods or unfriendly environment in the Conservatory.
The movie takes the audience to understand that it is not important what exactly and with what frequency Fletcher throws at Andrew: a cymbal or a chair, or mental abuse. Andrew Neiman would not slow down ‘his tempo’. Facing constant bullying and mistreatment, Andrew proves to Fletcher that he could work harder than anyone else in the band, can improve, and even become the greatest despite Fletcher’s determination to break him down and send him home crying. A potential ‘good job’ from the mentor would only slow down Andrew’s progress and it is all about the guy, not a villain.
THE RIVAL. At some moment in the story when Andrew regards his key position in the band as undisputed after a triumph over Carl Tanner, Fletcher confronts this confidence. The teacher intentionally introduces Ryan Connolly as a potential rival to Andrew. It may seem to many that the dispute over who is the better drummer among these two have already been solved at the first rehearsal. It is interesting to note that Ryan is depicted as a positive character. Despite Andrew’s rivalry and disregard, Ryan perceives his peer as a friend or at least not an enemy when he is introduced into the band with Neiman’s aggressive reaction to this fact. After the car accident, Ryan is the only man who is concerned about Andrew’s state. Later on, Connolly is the only band member, who comes to Fletcher’s aid when the teacher is being knocked down by Neiman. By introducing Ryan, Fletcher makes Andrew understand that he is replaceable as a drummer. Neiman is furious as he regards Ryan as an inferior and less talented drummer and more than that he is frustrated with Fletcher’s methods of unpredictability. At the same time, it is the competition that doubles Andrew’s efforts and determination, his integrity in making sacrifices to become number one. Neiman is confident that he is not only a better musician than Ryan, but that he can and would shed more blood and sweat, and sacrifice more in his life to become great.
THE FATHER, FAMILY, AND FRIENDS. There should be no doubt that for Jim Neiman his son is the most important thing in the whole world. The father and son not only spend time together: Jim has been backing Andrew’s passion for drum playing for years. Indisputably, Mr. Neiman finds pride in the fact that his son passed into the most prestigious music school in the country. One may say that toward the second half of the story Jim abandons Andrew’s ambitions, yet his criticism and frustration are only a reaction to his son’s arrogance and the loss of connection with the surrounding world beyond the music classroom. It is highly likely that the man has never seen his son ‘the greatest’ but he is happy to back Andrew’s prospective future.
The tragedy of Jim Neiman lies in the fact that way before Andrew’s accession to Terence Fletcher’s music class his son did not see his father as a role model and an example to follow. They both know that Jim failed to become a writer, a craft that was his passion, and his current ambitions are narrowed down to teaching in high school. In the opinion of Andrew, Jim not only failed to stand out from the mediocrity of New York’s middle class but suffered a setback on the way to his dream and passion. It is not said openly, but it was Andrew who became Jim’s priority in life nineteen years ago. As Andrew distances himself more and more from other people and healthy relations, he estranged himself from his father and regarded the parent arrogantly, though he doesn’t have the guts to say it. In the aftermath of a family dinner with an uncle, aunt, and cousins, it seems to Andrew that his father did not take his side. In one scene Andrew admits that Terence Fletcher’s opinion is crucial to him, which of course hurts Mr. Neiman, whose care he disregards.
While entering into Andrew’s life, Fletcher in some way takes the father role, a mentor such as Jim Neiman has never been. The point here is not in the virtues of the two men but in Andrew’s need for an authority figure, who can make him great. Jim takes Andrew in his arms and says that he is the most important thing in his entire life. Terence Fletcher throws a chair into Andrew’s head, shouts at him, distresses the kid, credits him with second-rate playing, and even disrespectfully mentions Andrew’s family. Forasmuch as Andrew believes that only going through pain, sweat and blood can make him the greatest, a pursuit for Fletcher’s approval becomes a moving force in his life, thus diminishing and devaluating the love of the father. In one of the scenes, Andrew skips Jim’s call not to stop practicing playing drums. This shift of the mentor comes to a dramatic climax when we see Jim Neiman’s face in the final scene: he understands that he has lost his son. Moments after we see a smile on Fletcher’s face, his minute-long approval of the apprentice. In contrast to his former balancing between the father’s worldview of ‘normal’ foreseeable life and the ambitions of becoming a professional musician, Andrew now drifts toward an alternative mentor, who can bring the kid to the edge.
While getting into the Whiplash character analysis, it comes as no surprise that a family dinner scene is a vital source of understanding. Andrew’s aunt and uncle in fact set little value on their nephew’s credentials and gains. They interrupt Andrew’s story and constantly shift the focus of attention toward their sons, Andrew’s cousins. There is nothing surprising in such an attitude, yet Neiman painfully takes such offense. As Andrew literally sheds blood and sweat on his way to becoming the greatest musician, it is frustrating to him that other people care a little about his success, do not support or at least do not understand the importance of his ambitions. The climax of the scene comes with no lauding of the cousins’ virtues, but with critical comments toward Andrew’s idols in music. We should give proper respect to the adults in their moderate reaction toward Andrew’s open aggression. On the other hand, he sees the people at the table as not more than mediocrities and obstacles he has to overcome on his way to success.
UNCLE FRANK : You got a lot of friends, Andy?
ANDREW : Not really.
UNCLE FRANK : And why’s that?
ANDREW : I don’t see the use.
With the intensification of the tension between Andrew and his relatives, his uncle asks whether Andrew has friends, but the nephew arrogantly says that ‘he did not see the use’. One should pay attention to his detail for the reason that it is not Terence Fletcher who made Andrew act like this, but the boy has been lonely and desolated all his life, shelling himself with the music. At the same time, Andrew’s answer correlates with the philosophy of his music teacher, who understands that being great is not the same as being popular and that teamwork harmony is nothing compared to the individual virtuosity of outstanding personalities. The point is that Andrew not only disregards his uncle, aunt, cousins, or even his father: he does not respect anyone except for a few historical figures and Terence Fletcher as his tool to become one of them. Dreams and gains of other people, social relations, and friendships seem insignificant to Andrew Neiman if not becoming ‘great’.
As the story shows, such an approach would bring results on the stage with the drums, yet such a dividing line between Andrew and the surrounding world ruins his personality. His friends are the posters of Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker on the walls. He feels no need to connect with the other people, as he arrogantly feels himself better than them all. Andrew Neiman sees ambitions and accomplishments before he sees people and he judges others. Above all, he thinks that no one truly supports his passion for the drums and he sees no other format of relations in a music band than the fierce competition and making people his enemies. And while the better half of the Whiplash audience takes Andrew’s determination as something we should admire, in the long run, all this devastates the boy and brings pain to the other people. Or is that the cost of greatness?
NICOLE. The story takes us to guess that Nicole was Andrew’s first girlfriend in his nineteen years of life. It is worth noting that he makes up his mind to have a talk to the girl after the first encounter with Terence Fletcher but before the abusive bullying methods. Hope was given and the oppression has not been implemented yet. It becomes obvious that the latter two dates in the cinema and in the cafe are events by inertia. In a cafe sequence, Nicole openly shares her doubts and worries in regard to college and her life choice. Andrew does not voice all he has in his mind at the moment but he obviously does not understand such indecisiveness, the lack of ambitions of becoming a great personality. During their last meeting together, Neiman gives the argument that he is too ambitious in his pursuit of becoming a great musician and that a girlfriend would only take his concentration away. Andrew is ready to sacrifice his relations with Nicole, whom he liked so much in the beginning. All his thoughts are narrowed to being a great drum player and he regards Nicole as an obstacle to be overcome. As a matter of fact, this girl brings the warmth of human relations to his life, peacefulness: the state that fits badly with his perverted reality of lonely greatness.
NICOLE : And when I did see you, you would treat me like shit, because I’m some girl who
doesn’t know what she wants, and you have a path, and you’re going to be great, and
I’m going to be forgotten, and therefore you won’t be able to give me the time of day because you have bigger things to pursue.
ANDREW : That’s right. That’s exactly my point.
It should be said that Buddy Rich, Andrew’s friend from the placards, was happily married for thirty-four years, and Charlie Parker had a wife and two children as well. Andrew’s tragedy is that at least at some point in time he had an inner desire to be ordinary, to have relations with a girl he liked. As the story develops and Fletcher’s oppression becomes almost unbearable to the extent he regards his own efforts as deficient, he takes Nicole as someone guilty of his own faults, a distraction from the most important in his life: jazz. Followed by a conflict with Fletcher, Andrew made himself believe that he may quit drum playing and he even tries to make up with Nicole once more, but the girl refuses such an act on the pretext that she has someone else. In fact, she was severely affected by Andrew’s egoism and arrogant attitude to her and her life. It is true that Nicole does not have exaggerated ambitions, but it is also true that she liked Andrew and was ready to back him in all his beginnings, but he never gave her a chance.
ANDREW: I’d rather die broke and drunk at 34 and have people at a dinner table somewhere
talk about it than die rich and sober at 90 and have no one remember me.
UNCLE FRANK : Ah, but friends remember you. That’s the whole point.
ANDREW : No, none of us were Charlie Parker’s friends. That’s the whole point.
UNCLE FRANK : Well there’s such a thing as feeling loved and included.
ANDREW : I prefer to feel hated and cast out. It gives me purpose.
THE FINAL ENDING EXPLAINED. Even after the space of all humiliation, Andrew is not ready to testify against his music teacher, pretending as if nothing has happened. Finally, Terence Fletcher loses his prestigious position at the Shaffer Conservatory. When later Andrew understands that a new chance for playing in the band is a kind of revenge, this does not break Neiman similar to the previous severities. He ignores new threats and continues playing his drum even after the lights went down. Andrew turns the possibility of public humiliation into an opportunity to stand out from the band. For years, the kid has talked so much and believed in individual virtuosity, and he finally has a chance to focus all the attention, Fletcher’s particularly, on himself.
As I have already suggested above, Andrew has always had this readiness for self-sacrifice and abandoning of ‘normal’ life, but he indeed has come a long way since the opening scene in the classroom. From a boy, who silently bore humiliation and had problems with eye contact, now turned himself into a young musician, who can fight back both against his relatives and against his abusive teacher. One may say that Andrew’s performance in the final scene is also revenge for the revenge, but Andrew is playing so masterfully that his drumming changes Fletcher’s attitude to his apprentice. It is not unreasonable to assume that Fletcher’s setup with music was also a part of his plan to forge a new Charlie Parker. Andrew is continuing playing not for revenge for the humiliations but to be the greatest. After leaving Shaffer Conservatory, Andrew experienced some frustrating times with an inner conflict. The acceptance of the idea that Terence Fletcher was no more than an abuser gives birth to a cognitive dissonance that all of Andrew’s efforts were to no avail. With a clear understanding of who Fletcher is (another Jo Jones), Neiman plays as he never did before. He does not want to be a victim anymore and finally wins the approval of his teacher.
While Andrew is merging himself with solo playing, for the first time in the story Fletcher calls him by name and asks what is the boy doing. Neiman answers that he’ll cue him in. This is a crucial detail of the vital scene, its apotheosis. It is highly likely that Terence Fletcher has been waiting for such a reaction from one of his talented students for years. Andrew demonstrates that he is not only a man who can’t be broken down by threats or abusive language but that he defines his own destiny, which is integrally linked to drums. In this scene, he metaphorically follows the way of Buddy Rich from that semi-fictional story about his triumph over failure. After two hours of depicting Neiman in the shadows, not even visual means of the movie highlight Andrew on stage. It is important in the double measure that Andrew triumphs over Fletcher’s abuse not by law mean against the abuser, not by arguing in a bar, or a fight: he triumphs through music, through jazz, through being a virtuoso. Similar to his previous training, Neiman is not restricted to the necessity to stop, and this extra playing differentiates him from the crowd. Getting back to Jim Neaiman’s reaction, probably for the first time he is admired and afraid of his son’s talent and his devotion to music. In a wider sense, on this stage that night the boy won the respect of both his fathers.
The better half of the audience accepts the finale of ‘Whiplash’ as a happy note, a triumph of talent and justice, but is that true? It may seem that all of Fletcher’s harsh methods finally gave the result, but is that true? The truth is toward the end of the story Andrew’s life is centered on drums only: no relations, no relatives, no girl, no hobbies or alternatives. He made his choice years ago, probably as far back as childhood, and Terence Fletcher only made Andrew bring these sacrifices. The finale in fact leaves us with a wide field of speculations, but Andrew would probably continue his studying under Fletcher and the man would definitely not abandon his methods and philosophy, particularly with the later results. For Andrew, it would always be a burning feeling that he could do even better with more blood and sweat. It is not necessarily mean that he would follow the fate of Sean Casey, who managed to get rid of Fletcher’s influence only by means of suicide, but Andrew’s life would definitely be defective. One may say that Andrew is finally free and could get rid of Fletcher, but it is not the case. In fact, he could leave the band at any given time and he intentionally has not done this and would not in the future, even since receiving attention from influential people. In fact, he gets his happiness by getting a minute’s approval from the abuser. He has made his choice.
TERENCE FLETCHER: TALENT MEANS NOTHING
THE UNSPOKEN AUTHORITY. As early as the opening scene in the conservatory, it is easy to recognize the level of respect and estimation Andrew feels toward the man, whom he has not seen before but heard about a lot. For years, the protagonist had the desire to pass to the most prestigious music school in the country and his ambitions definitely included studying under the most recognized teacher. Getting into Terence Fletcher’s band means passing another selection for the best of the best. The point is that Fletcher does not regard these young men and women as the best musicians. He does not care about their previous pass prior to entering his classroom door: their journey through pain is only taking its beginning here.
In contrast to Andrew Neiman, who averts his eyes, behaves confidently, and acts submissive to other people, Fletcher demonstrates another sort of behavior. Once he enters the room, the auditorium falls silent: an aura of respect or fear or both. It should be said that it is not something extraordinary to dominate people who are your subordinates, much younger than you, and are dependent on your approval or opinion. If truth be told, Fletcher never crosses the line with the adults outside Shaffer throughout the story. But it is not because they can defend themselves from his abuse, but because he does not care about them: they do not live jazz and are no candidates for the next Buddy Rich. In a narrow means, Fletcher’s behavior is directly correlated with his work, and his purpose in life. On the one hand, it is easy to regard this character as an evident villain, who humiliates his students and breaks them down only for self-affirmation. On the other, his behavior is backed by a particular system, which can be defined.
TERENCE FLETCHER’S METHODS. The gist of the matter is that Fletcher does not regard his methods as‘ wrong’ or amoral or abusive and he would never excuse himself for seeking a new Buddy Rich. Similar to Andrew Neiman, he is willingly blinded by the misinterpreted stories of well-known musicians, who, in fact, were human beings with families, worries, wins, and setbacks in their careers, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Literally speaking, Fletcher’s methods could be explained with a sententious saying that no pain no gain. He disregards talent in a common understanding and believes that talent is a child of sweat and blooded fingers, caused by merciful drum playing. It is of no importance to Fletcher how talented a young student is if could not take the cymbal or chair thrown to his head as a clue for exhausting practicing until blood on the drums and a necessity to become better every time he enters the classroom.
The truth is I don’t think people understand what it is I did at Shaffer. I wasn’t there to conduct. Any idiot can move his hands and keep people in tempo. No, it’s about pushing people beyond what’s expected of them. And I believe that is a necessity. Because without it you’re depriving the world of its next Armstrong. Its next Parker.
Fletcher justifies his own harshness with the assertion that such bullying toward students is necessary for their good. The point goes so far as to suppose that if he doesn’t take tough mentorship over these young people, they would become other mediocrities in jazz. While making frequent references to the historical figures, Fletcher has actually become in thrall to the past, when the grass was greener and the musicians better. In his world view, the more suffering a student goes through, humiliation bears, express integrity, the more chances he or she has to become great. He is not interested in creating ‘good’ jazz players: he is in constant pursuit of finding the best. By squeezing anything else from students’ lives apart from music, Fletcher makes them sacrifice as the only way to greatness: the logic very similar to the one Andrew has cultivated. Their acquaintance and cooperation were not incidental as they both strongly believe in the same philosophy, though playing different roles. Fletcher and Neiman are interdependent.
One of Fletcher’s methods is the constant repeating of one task in a never-achieving pursuit of perfection. He makes his students play the same part of the composition again and again aggressively, bullying them for not following his tempo. In regard to the piety of Fletcher as a teacher, when they fail to repeat his tempo, it looks like they fail to follow the instructions of a man they fear and respect. He plays students against one another, thus kindling the fire of competition in the band. Fletcher chooses a victim and openly humiliates them in front of others by separating this student from society: another price of success. During Andrew’s very first lesson in Fletcher’s orchestra, the teacher claims that someone in the band sabotages the whole playing. The one version is that someone did poor training for the day and doesn’t want to reveal the fact, and the second, is inferior in Fletcher’s mind if someone does not know he is playing badly. Actually, he expels the boy who did neither first nor second but acted like a victim.
It’s about weeding out the best from the worst so that the worst become better than the best. There are no two words more harmful in the entire English language than “good job”.
It is interesting to analyze the dialogue in the bar, after being fired from Shaffer, when Fletcher tries to justify his methods and explains in detail his philosophy to Andrew. He openly lets Neiman see that dedication and ability to make sacrifices define the great musician from the good (just talented) ones. One may assume that Fletcher is ready to sacrifice his own popularity and likeability just to make his students better musicians. The truth is, his methods are far from being selfless as Terence Fletcher is a kind of self-affected egotistical character, who should not be admired in ‘Whiplash’. He believes that his methods make the world a better place and he does nothing to excuse himself. As a teacher, he is recognized well beyond Shaffer Conservatory and this fact only fuels his egomania. Fletcher managed to obtain his authority at the expense of his harsh methods and oppression of the young musicians. It is true that he makes them play better, but their development joys him with self-affirmation and recognition. By making his band better he makes himself look better.
Fletcher is obsessed with the story of a jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, who in his words became great because Jo Jones had thrown a cymbal at his head. Of course, this repeated story is only a metaphor in the mouth of a key (the only) protagonist. It should be said that despite his narcissism and egoism, Fletcher sincerely believes that by throwing chairs and cymbals at his students and clashing them with one another, he teaches them how to be great. He wholeheartedly believes that the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged. Terence Fletcher is definitely not a kind of mentor, who can express compassion for how hard the teaching is for you. He is more likely to throw a chair at your head to whip you into shape. He goes so far with his justification, that he even distorts the story of a former student Sean Casey. The point is Fletcher does not admit his own at least partial fault for Casey’s suicide and invents the car crash. We can only imagine how many potentially good musicians Fletcher has oppressed with his methods in his never-ending pursuit of another Charlie Parker or Andrew Neiman. How many talents were discouraged by not hearing from him ‘good job’, but instead humiliated and abused? Fletcher wants to be remembered as a man who threw a cymbal at some great musician’s head. It is easy to make a correlation between abuse and success based on the one-on-a-million stories of success, but 999 999 others generally fail and, in fact, the whole ‘Whiplash’ is a good example of the ‘Survivorship bias’. In other words, a myriad of teachers who are abusive with their students come to nothing.
FLETCHER AND NEIMAN. It would be shortsighted to think that Fletcher completely rejects the talent of his musicians. The truth is that he interprets talent as an ability to get better by overbearing blood, humiliation, and setbacks. There are many musicians who may be regarded as talented, but there are only a few to be appraised as the greatest. In Fletcher’s eyes, a reliance on talent is a strive for ease. It is important to understand that it definitely was not Andrew’s talent, which made Fletcher’s choice to take him into the band as a drummer. Make no mistake it was Neiman’s devotion to practice late in the evening in an empty classroom when his peers were drinking beer in local bars. Terence saw a young man, who was ready to put skin in the game by not following the crowd of mediocrity, but by working more than the others.
ANDREW : But do you think there’s a line? You know — where you discourage the next Charlie Parker from becoming Charlie Parker?
FLETCHER : No. Because the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged.
Intriguingly, when Terence Fletcher needs this, he may even be charming. In one of the sequences, he has a sweet chat with a little girl, later on, appealingly speaks about his former student and plays peacefully in a jazz bar after being fired. On Andrew’s first day in the band, Fletcher encourages Neiman. He assures Andrew that the boy is not an accidental guest here and makes him believe that Andrew is special. It comes out that such politeness is another of Fletcher’s abusive methods, which gives his students a false sense of security from the start. Fletcher shouts at Neiman, throws a chair at his head, and humiliates the boy by going into personals. Fletcher uses the minimum amount of information he knows about Neiman his family and his ambitions to abuse the student. He uses the phrase ‘Not my tempo’ again and again or shouts ‘FASTER’ pursuing the rhythm, to make Andrew understand his vulnerable and attackable position and of any member of the band.
Without a doubt, such a burst of bullying on the very first lesson is nothing else than a test and it is not hard to imagine that Fletcher uses such methods against a first-year student every year. The audience has not been even given an understanding of whether Andrew actually fails to follow the tempo or not, yet the recognition or rejection of a teacher is the obvious takeaway. Fletcher would once again play the role of a calm and mindful mentor in a bar. We may assume that Fletcher is a kind of another person beyond the walls of the conservatory or music halls, but such a shift is delusive. While being not only a maestro of jazz teaching, but also an arrogant man, Fletcher does not use his harsh voice in places and times where and when it is not necessary, and when his authority is not confronted. No matter how hard the journey for greatness is for Andrew, he would never receive a hint of compassion as it would confront Fletcher’s philosophy.
But I tried. And that’s more than most people can say, Andrew. I tried. And even if I never find one, I will never apologize for trying.
THE FINAL SCENE. It may seem that Andrew’s triumph on stage symbolizes his symbolic victory over Fletcher for all the humiliations and abuses, particularly if indeed there was a setup. Anyway, the truth is that Fletcher is now admired for Andrew’s performance. After years of seeking a great apprentice, a new Charlie Parker, he finally got a pupil who had not stopped regardless of all thrown chairs and cymbals, downcomes, losses of face, pain, and blood. Human beings feel happy when our expectations come true and in the final scene, Terence Fletcher experiences satisfaction. Neiman’s triumph redeems him from the cognitive dissonance that he has not yet succeeded as a great mentor of a great musician despite all his efforts toward his students. In a narrow sense, Fletcher feels not only a minute pride for his disciple but an egoistic satisfaction with himself, his methods, and a part of attention, which would be soon directed at him as well.
Did Terence Fletcher make Andrew Neiman a great drummer? It is only the beginning and it is highly likely that their roads would run in parallel for years to achieve greatness: both for a pupil and for a mentor. These two are as much different as similar and indispensable to each other. While Fletcher takes delight in compliments of professional jazz musicians, and VIP guests, he is too selfish to be bothered by someone else’s opinion if it confronts his own. Andrew on the contrary is still at least until the finale) highly dependent upon a second opinion and he oversensitively reacts to the lack of support. Getting back to the issue of talent, Andrew has already been talented and Fletcher only made him break out of the limits and live on the edge. Fletcher’s smile in the finale symbolizes a realization that Neiman has all means to become another Buddy Rich.
It is important to underline the moment when during Andrew’s solo performance, Fletcher literally assists his apprentice to play better. He recovers a cymbal and flourishes his arms to show the tempo. He calls the boy by the mane and approvingly signifies consent with a nod and all these work. In this final scene, Fletcher shifts himself from a constant pursuit of a great drummer, whom he finally found, and concentrates on Andrew’s productivity. Whether he realizes it or not, Fletcher not only gets his own contentment but renders it to Neiman: the invested efforts worthed the cost. The point is Andrew had little chance to hit the wall without Terence Fletcher, and the latter had little perspective of becoming a well-known mentor without Neiman. It is only their final cooperation that gave the audience a masterful performance, something indeed special. They turned themselves into Charlie Parker and Jo Jones.
I never wanted to be Charlie Parker. I wanted to be the man who made Charlie Parker. The man who discovered some scrawny kid, pushed him, prodded him, shaped him into something great — and then said to the world, “Check this out. The best motherfucking solo you’ve ever heard.”