I’ve given a lot of thought to ambition and what it means in life. The question of how far one is willing to go to succeed or, if success isn’t enough, become “the best” and immortalize themselves -somehow (I’ve also given a lot of thought to that concept and it seems like fool’s gold, to be honest) – is one I think every serious artist needs to ask. Damien Chazelle, the writer and director of Whiplash, shows what life is like when ruled by ambition.
Miles Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a 19 year-old jazz drumming prodigy with the hopes of become the next Buddy Rich. JK Simmons plays his jazz conductor/mentor, Terence Fletcher, a maniacal and borderline psychopathic man bent on pushing his students past their limits and, in his eyes, hopefully, to greatness.
The film revolves around these two characters and the music. Everything else – Andrew’s father (played by a very tender Paul Reiser), Andrew’s love interest (Melissa Benoist), and his social group that is non-existent outside of his competitors – is background noise. This is a deliberate choice, as the story is about the ambition of two men, one burgeoning and the other past his prime, and nothing else. When we meet Andrew he is alone with his drums and Fletcher walks in to judge him. When we leave Andrew he isn’t alone, but he may as well be, and his relationship with Fletcher has evolved.
I was struck by how little judgement Chazelle passes on his characters and their ambition. One can read the story in, essentially, two different ways depending on your own values.
1.) Andrew and Fletcher ruin their own lives with their ambition. Andrew becomes unhinged throughout the story in his single-minded pursuit of greatness, isolating himself from his family, failing to make friends, and losing the girl he pined for. Fletcher, meanwhile, loses his job at Shaffer conservatory and his chance at finding what he hopes will be the next Charlie Parker.
2.) Andrew and Fletcher both succeed only because of their unrelenting focus on what they want. After overcoming Fletcher’s sabotage (in retribution for getting him fired from Shaffer) Andrew wows the audience with a 9-minute drum solo and earns Fletcher’s respect. Meanwhile, Fletcher realizes that Andrew is the great student he was seeking his entire career.
I can see it both ways. To me, I think they both wrecked themselves emotionally and socially. However, neither character cared about their own or others emotions nor their social standing. All either character cared about was becoming “great.” In that sense, the ending hints that they both achieved that goal. The sacrifices they made – losing the girl, being fired from the job – weren’t really sacrifices because they didn’t prevent them from succeeding.
I prefer my first interpretation, because the second troubles me.
Before I actually took the step of moving to Virginia, I used to often think about what it would take for me to realize my potential. I felt distracted in Buffalo, like having friends and family that I cared about and wanted to spend time with was a bad thing. I thought, as Andrew does in the film, that I needed a singular focus on becoming the best possible artist I could become.
Now that I’ve lived away from home for three years and have had the opportunity to let writing be my singular focus, I realize how naive that was.
For writers, at least, as I have no experience playing drums outside of Rock Band for XBox 360, the support of friends and family, and the existence of hobbies, is what gets you through becoming a writer. Those things are the inspiration a writer needs to flourish, not flounder. It takes a lot of time commitment to become great at something, that’s true, but I am of the opinion that without the opportunity to share success with others, all the time spent alone reaching for “greatness” isn’t worth it. Neglecting aspects of your lives may make you great at one thing, but it won’t fulfill every area of life that needs fulfilling. It won’t make you well-rounded.
Of course, that’s just me and my perspective. Someone else, someone who has that singular focus, may view Andrew and Fletcher’s story as one with a happy ending. That’s one of the many beautifully done things in the film. And that’s one of the many reasons it’s worth seeing.