Whiplash written and directed by Damien Chazelle (Bold Films, Blumhouse Productions, Right of Way Films, R, 107 min)
Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, and Paul Reiser.
What does it take to be an effective leader? Let’s get the obvious out of the way. You’ll need followers. If you’re leading thin air, I feel bad for you son. But supposing you are in a position of leadership, no matter how large or small, there’s an opportunity to mold the people underneath you, to encourage them and maximize their potential.
Some leaders offer the quiet calm in a storm. Others are fiery and charismatic. Some micro-manage; others break the chains and let their people run free. Truthfully, much of your leadership depends on the personalities and needs of your people.
Yet, some leaders don’t quite understand that.
This fact provides the foundation for Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash.
Searching for Greatness
The film depicts the story of a young drumming prodigy, Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), enrolled at the renowned Shaffer Conservatory. Having caught the eye of studio band director Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Andrew gains access to the top-notch band in the conservatory through his appointment as the alternate drummer.
Quickly after joining the band, Andrew discovers the abusive philippics of his teacher, most notably in a verbal undressing as Andrew attempts to play a tune titled “Whiplash.” Slaps to the face, cursing, and chairs hurtled across the room represent a normal practice seesion, but Andrew endures because he wants to be great. He desires more than anything else to be the best drummer in the world, to the point of breaking up with his girlfriend and spending less time with his father (Paul Reiser).
Fletcher’s consistent pushing sends Neiman into a neurotic state as he plays drums until he bleeds and extends to others the abusive behavior he withstands. Clearly, Andrew is progressing. But is it worth the social cost?
Explorations on Managerial Style
Whiplash is a difficult but rewarding film to watch. Terence Fletcher’s managerial style enrages me, especially considering the research out there on human flourishing. Abuse should never work. Even if it might develop better performers, the emotional cost is too high.
Truthfully, people are unique and, therefore, require customized leadership. The relational queues that motivate one person won’t motivate another.
In a crucial scene, Terence Fletcher makes a comment about the two worst words in the English language: “Good job.” In his mind, the abuse exists as a necessary evil. The trail of bodies behind the bus are the price to create the next great musician. If the verbal and physical violence doesn’t push the player to get better, then that player will never be great anyway. That position qualifies as falsehood. Greatness comes in many forms and the motivations for greatness are as multi-faceted. Some people work on words of encouragement. If you want good performance, you need to tell them how good it has been and they’ll push for more. Some people just need a hug. Other people just need you to get out of the way so they can pursue mastery unencumbered. All of these positions are valid.
J.K. Simmons performs powerfully as Terence Fletcher and his character represents all that is terrifying about the power structures between the person in charge and the person taking orders. Leadership is a frail existence with many perils. So you better understand your people on an emotional and social level if you want to get the best out of them.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5