“Life is too short to work so hard.”
Why, might I ask, did this Vivien Leigh quote wander into my life mere hours before seeing Whiplash? Old fate and coincidence striking again I’d imagine; the ultimate contrast of ideologies to cross my path, because Whiplash’s message, the constant ringing cymbal throughout, is surely the polar opposite.
Ambling into the cinema with a newfound chill, Leigh’s words lightly guided my mind around the stack of revision and coursework on my desk, and on to the hot chocolate in my hand and the croissant I would blissfully consume at the end of the viewing – think warm smiles and soft eyes, complete relaxation.
And then, BAM. The crescendo-ing drum beat rang through the speakers and into my oblivious ear canals, jolting me upright in my seat, feet flat on the ground. Great, I was now in soldier-mode. Tense and nervous. But with a character like Fletcher, it’s no surprise.
Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is a jazz teacher – an intense one at that. He scouts young and passionate Andrew Neiman to play drums in his band, propelling the 19-year-old to a pedestal of opportunity in the jazz world. Competitions and performances await – a potential lifetime of musical success. Yet, to get there, Neiman has to overcome Fletcher first. With sergeant major force and diligence, he doesn’t let up for shit. He pushes his band beyond limits, beyond what is expected of them – blood, sweat and a single tear, induced without mercy.
But Fletcher is a character of contrasts. One minute he’s leaning a comforting hand on the wall in a bid to relax Neiman, his next object of prey, or chatting sweetly to a seven-year-old girl, hinting at a future place for her among his band (yeah. right) and in the same breath, spitting with contempt at his “fucking limp-dick, sour-note dipshits” – also known as a selection of the most talented jazz musicians in the country. Boy does he like his compound nouns. If you’re not Buddy Rich, you’re not good enough. I bet even if he walked in, sat down and played an effortlessly perfect double-time swing, Fletcher would find something to comment on. “Not quite my tempo, Rich.”
For Neiman, the whole experience is new and utter, utter carnage. An introvert of sorts, he is isolated and friendless, sucked into the microcosm Fletcher creates. In the practice room (or what I like to call the ‘cave’), Fletcher is there in form. Anywhere and everywhere else, he is there in spirit – this omnipresent, omniscient, omni-nagger. Whenever Fletcher enters a room, the camera tracks his footsteps, this ominous beat tapping at the silence in the ‘cave’, echoing and reverberating, setting the pace for each session ahead.
And through all the screaming and beating and insanity, the passion comes through in glittering abundance. Our hands bleed and bleed again for it means something. More than the blood we shed. Drumming is Neiman’s language, his letters and words – cut him and he will bleed snares and rolls. We know what Fletcher does to his band is out-of-control and wreckless, abusing his power and authority, but deep down surely there is a method to his madness? Surely the results are worth the cruelty and the barbarism?
All I know is, I have never scoffed a croissant so quickly in my life. My growing stack of work now seems frighteningly urgent. Yes, life is too short, Leigh was right there. But it’s not too short for passion. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a Fletcher on my shoulder to satisfy.