I saw an incredible movie last night. It starred one of my favorite actors, J.K. Simmons, which was reason enough to watch since he has never been in a bad movie or given a bad performance. It also had a music theme, jazz, to be specific. So there was a lot to recommend...Whiplash. But as the credits rolled after an hour and forty five minutes I simply did not know what to think.
It was a mesmerizing thing to watch. Simmons was brilliant. His performance was taut and crackling with intensity. Every time he entered a room dressed tightly in black I feared him. He plays a jazz band conductor at an elite music conservatory in New York City who begins all of his classes at the stroke of the hour. The players all look utterly terrified, not just of playing a sour note, but even being noticed by this profane, raging volcano of a man. Early in the film he happens upon a 19 year old freshman drummer practicing alone in an empty room. He takes an interest in his evident talent and the rest of the film tells the story of how this man goes about trying to draw the very best out of the kid. Simmon's tactics are...shall we say, a bit light on affirmation.
Terence Fletcher is a bully. His preferred teaching technique seems to be humiliation. He is violent, abusive and a world class devotee of imaginative profanity. As you watch him do his thing you begin to hate him. No one, no matter how talented should have the authority to be such an asshole. No amount of giftedness can possibly excuse such cruelty. And yet...
Fletcher is a character that is well known throughout the history of mankind. It's the lunatics of this world who produce the most astounding works of art. The men and women who have demonstrated the willingness to go beyond good to relentlessly pursue great, are the ones who end up as legends. It's just not much fun to watch. Fletcher seems obsessed with the story of young Charlie Parker who allegedly had a cymbal thrown at him by the drummer Jo Jones after making a mistake on his sax solo. According to Fletcher's telling, it was this humiliation that fired Parker to become a more committed, determined musician and was ultimately responsible for his genius. Maybe. Something tells me that true musical genius has less to do with 20,000 hours of practice than it does with genetics, but that's just me. But, as you watch the ferocious, abusive techniques employed by Terence Fletcher and the disastrous consequences it has on young Andrew Teller, you find yourself thinking, "Would it kill this guy to give the kid a compliment?"
The most memorable line in the film comes when Fletcher tells Teller, " There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job." Not exactly an epitaph most people want on their tombstone, but for the pursuit of artistic greatness perhaps there's a grain of truth.
As I watched this movie I couldn't help thinking about Sherri Matthews. No, she was not an abusive, profane maniac. But she didn't exactly have much patience for mediocrity either. She did give compliments, but never false ones. She instilled a healthy fear in her students, not fear of failing, but a fear of laziness, a fear of the consequences of not giving their best effort. Her high standards and exacting demands created an environment that produced beautiful, award winning music and inspired more than a few musicians on to bigger and better things, my son being one of them.
Maybe Jazz is different. Maybe Fletcher's style is required to root out the good from the great. If so, no wonder so many jazzmen kill themselves!