Former career-minded musician that I used to be, I finally watched the movie “Whiplash.”
I had been told to watch it because I might be able to relate from my own years of intense musical practice.
In this, my best friend in particular warned it might have a “few scenes” I might find disturbing.
After about five minutes, I assumed she was referring to all the scenes.
I loathed this film from the start.
I hated everything about it – from the inaccurate portrayals of drumming and musicianship, to the seeming decision by screenwriters and producers alike to skip over meaningless steps like fact-checking jazz history, to the gratuitous displays of vile meanness that are already so prevalent in society today.
However, in the midst of all this, one important actual fact did stand out.
In the opening scene, we meet the main protagonist, first-year aspiring jazz drummer Andrew Neyman.
Neyman desperately wants to rise above the mediocrity he sees in his family and those around him. To achieve this, he practices until his hands literally bleed.
His drive attracts the attention of the story’s main antagonist, Shaffer Music Conservatory conductor and bandleader Terence Fletcher.
As a teacher and mentor, Terence Fletcher is as vicious and abusive as it gets. He quickly singles out Neyman for special attention.
At first, young Andrew seems to fold under the pressure. But then he surprises us (or at least me) by coming back for more….and more….and more.
Somewhat late in the development of Andrew’s story, a minor character named “Sean Casey” is introduced.
We don’t ever actually meet Casey…this is because he is dead by the time we first hear his name.
According to Fletcher, Casey was a Shaffer student who died unexpectedly in an auto accident.
According to lawyers who later step into the picture, Casey actually hanged himself. The reason given is anxiety and stress brought on while he was under the tender loving tutelage of one Terence Fletcher.
Andrew’s story picks up again from here, and the film lets us wonder right up until the final scenes which way he will go.
[MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT] Just in case you still actually want to watch the film…..
Andrew rises. He rises, meets Fletcher head to head, and then rises some more.
He rises and rises until it becomes CRYSTAL clear just how strong, how determined, how self-directed this young man truly is.
In this, Andrew reminds me of me.
And he reminds me of certain other key folks I’ve met along the way, folks who have steadfastly mentored me in the art of refusing to allow circumstances (past or present) or others’ opinions to define my worth or potential.
He reminds me of what it takes to survive anything in life.
He also reminds me that labeling what one is struggling to survive doesn’t change what it will take to overcome whatever-it-is….except in the case of perhaps providing more useful knowledge with which to win the struggle.
Here is an example.
I personally went from struggling with Neyman-level frustrated musical ambitions to struggling with an eating disorder, and then to struggling with depression and then to struggling with severe panic attacks….I struggled and struggled over two full decades, and I just kept struggling.
I think I would have struggled forever, whether I had known what to call my struggles or not (I say this because, for the first eight years at least, I didn’t have any idea what to call what was wrong with me!)
Whenever the inner (or outer) enemies got too vicious, I distanced myself….or jumped on them and attacked….or both (sneak attacks can be quite effective!).
When I heard the word “impossible,” I took it as both a personal challenge and a golden opportunity to prove myself right.
When certain folks said they believed I would never recover – could never rise above my past struggles – I thought to myself, “Well that shows how much YOU know about ME.”
Or (on my really bad days) I would think, “Well if you are right about me, at least I will go down swinging like a hero instead of cringing like a coward.”
In all this, I have always deeply disliked the word “can’t” – preferring to substitute the word “won’t” whenever feasible.
This is because, when I would start to whine about how “oh but I just can’t,” my wonderful mentors would help me remember to reframe it as “but I just won’t,” until I could reliably make this distinction for myself, and decide from there what I would or wouldn’t do.
This is why, to me at least, the focus on jazz and the rigors of conservatory life is but a shallow subtext to the real story of “Whiplash,” a movie that depicts through stark and unrelenting human meanness what it sometimes takes to survive and thrive.
In this way, “Whiplash” actually reminds me of one of my all-time favorite films, “A Beautiful Mind” (watch the latter if you’ve seen the former and you may see what I mean!)
That aside, the only “take away” worth taking away from “Whiplash” – at least in my personal opinion – is that the choice of what to believe, who to believe, who our mentors are, and what our own potential is to survive and thrive – is always and entirely up to us.
Today’s Takeaway: Have you seen “Whiplash?” What message(s) stood out to you? Did you enjoy the film – why or why not? Have you ever had mentors who seemed to be treating you very harshly, only to later find out those mentors had their own reasons for such treatment? Do you agree or disagree with using meanness or even violent means to seek greatness? Would you ever seek out or accept a mentor who used these strategies on you?