“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job'” – Movie Review on Whiplash (2014)

Not my tempo” is perhaps the most frequently repeated line in Whiplash by the ruthless conductor Fletcher of an elite music school. An extreme perfectionist, Fletcher is abusively demanding to members of his ensemble. He shouts insults and foul language to push them to be technically perfect.

Andrew is a new joiner of Fletcher’s band. Greeted by Fletcher’s verbal humiliation and hurled a chair by the conductor, Andrew practises day and night. He does not stop with blood oozing from his palm, but put on layers of plaster and even soaks his hands in ice-water to continue with his gruelling practice sessions. While Fletcher strongly believes that positive comments like “good job” on just mediocre cannot bring musicians in training anywhere, Andrew also firmly accepts Fletcher’s methods and will not stop to make himself one of the greats. Even though he is injured in a car accident right before a competition, he still runs to the concert hall in bloody face, because he has earned the core drummer position after hours of intense competition and selection with two other drummers of the ensemble, and he cannot let the original substitutes play his part. However, as he struggles to play with his injured arm, Fletcher stops the piece halfway and tells Andrew that he is “done”. Andrew attacks Fletcher on stage and is subsequently expelled by the school.

Fletcher’s methods do not only cause discomfort to his current students like Andrew, but have allegedly led to a former student Sean Casey’s death. When the lawyer representing Sean Casey’s parents asks Andrew to testify on Fletcher’s abusive teaching, Andrew agrees. Fletcher is then fired by the school.

And yet Fletcher does not abuse students for personal reasons. In his eyes, he is doing so for the sake of the student who can overcome the challenges, and the music industry to nurture the next legendary musician. When Andrew meets Fletcher again in a pub, Fletcher tells the story of Charlie Parker. Parker once played with drummer Jo Jones. Dissatisfied with Parker’s performance, Jo Jones hurled a cymbal at Parker, nearly decapitating him. Having told himself not to be ridiculed again, Parker started practising intensively and made the legendary performance of the 20th century.

So, imagine if Jones had just said, “Well, that’s okay, Charlie. That was all right. Good job.” So Charlie thinks to himself, “Well, shit, I did do a pretty good job.” End of story. No Bird. That to me is an absolute tragedy. But that’s just what the world wants now. And they wonder why jazz is dying.

Fletcher laments at the world’s tolerance of mediocrity and excessive compliments. To Fletcher, pushing students to the extreme is his necessary duty to the industry. He is not afraid of going too far, because “the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged“.

Fletcher’s mission in life is reached with Andrew’s final performance which parallels with that of Charlie Parker. Fletcher, who already knows it is Andrew who testifies and makes him lose the job, sets Andrew up by inviting him to an important performance without telling him that the concert pieces are those he has not played before. The audience is composed of critics and agents, who never forget about a musician’s performance – if you screw it up this time, you are forever done. As expected by Fletcher, Andrew screws up the first piece – he does not even have a score to follow. Nevertheless, Fletcher is not discouraged. He starts playing another band piece that he has practised hard, that showcases all his efforts and talents. From attempting to stop Andrew, showing disbelief, nodding with satisfaction, to guiding Andrew to perfect his performance, the final scene features the eye contact between Fletcher – smiling and with great enthusiasm – and Andrew – exhausted but blissful. Andrew’s astonishing performance makes the audience wide-eyed in amazement. While for Fletcher, he has finally fulfilled his duty to the music industry.

A legendary performance certainly does not come easy, and the next great artist needs to be pushed. It is also not disputed that the next Charlie Parker will possess the determination to succeed. The question lies in how far should one go in the quest of nurturing the next legendary artist while uncertain if a young musician is really the next Charlie Parker who can withstand the stress and anxiety, or will mentally break down and have his or her future ruined. In the present era where competition is fierce, it is always a doubt as to how far should one go to pursue artistic immortality.

Below is the final scene of the film, in which you can appreciate the unparalleled performance by both JK Simmons and Miles Telller. Damien Chazelle has beautifully transformed the story of an aspiring drummer into a single-directional drumming tension that makes your heart keep racing towards the very end.

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6 thoughts on ““There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job'” – Movie Review on Whiplash (2014)

  1. While engaging as a movie I don’t buy Fletchers theory. While we can be lulled into security and acceptance of mediocrity we can also be uplifted by others greatness. Unless your going to be asked to kill someone like in the army such aggressive tactics produce ostracization and burn out more than they can uplift someone to greatness IMO. And it goes with the assumption that greatness can be wrung out of someone. What about the Motzarts and Bachs that are great at such young ages? The whole point of the movie Amadeus is that Soliari is jealous of how God has seemingly given greatness with so little effort and care.
    It seems to me Fletchers methods are more likely to discourage great talent than encourage and even in the movie he never really finds his Charlie Parker which would me wonder if I’m doing something wrong.

    Like I said effective for a movie plot but in real life would be a disaster

    Liked by 1 person

  2. As a film, Whiplash is an amazing piece of work, as we talk about in our podcast. We need mentors who push us, and certainly, Fletcher is a mentor for only a specific kind of student. Who would Andrew have become without Fletcher? We might never know. I know if it were me, I would have gone off with the pretty girl every time. Ha. Maybe that’s why I can’t play drums. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. enjoyed your review. it brought the movie back to me. i have not had teachers like fletcher, but have worked with people who assumed the ruthless mentor role, most notable a theatre director from russia who trained me asim. a director while i acted for him, when you are inside such a relationship, it does not seem nearly as brutal or sadistic as when you look at it from the outside, as we do in the film.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a spectacular movie. The tension between Fletcher and Andrew is intensely palpable. It is this friction that climaxes in the final scene in an explosion of talent by both student and master. Fletcher almost reminds me of those Zen masters who hit their students, with the “keisako” (wooden stick) during meditation sessions, to wake them up if they fall asleep, to correct posture or lapses of concentration. It is the mentor guiding the student to perfection, eliminating the ego, and drawing out the essence of the talent hidden behind the layers of conformism, self-pity and other psychological distractions. I am not, in any way, advocating that teachers and masters should treat their students in the way Fletcher was doing, but he evokes an appreciation and respect that come for those who are committed to precision and excellence in any field. J.K. Simmons is outstanding! Miles Teller follows suit! I really love this movie, and I have to agree: “good job” are really the most harmful words that one can expect from a teacher or master. There will always be room to excel. Thank you Louisa for sharing your “Whiplash” experience with us! 🙂

    Like

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