Where do skill, creativity and virtuosity come from? Are you born with them, or does it help to have dedication, hard work and tenacity hammered in to you from an early age?
That’s the theme of Whiplash, directed by dropout drummer turned film director Damien Chazell. So if Chazell didn’t quite reach his goal of being the twenty-first century Buddy Rich, does he reach top echelon status as a film director?
Well Whiplash is a well-worked movie with a faultless tempo that scarcely misses a beat. Embellished and reworked from a movie short shown at Sundance, it becomes an extended solo on the theme of creativity and the origins of genius. But it begins essentially as a duet between an ambitious young jazz drummer and a scheming, manipulative teacher turned band leader, who uses every emotional and psychological trick to show everyone he’s boss.
The teacher, played by J.K. Simmons, uses subterfuge, emotional blackmail and the worst kinds of sexism and humiliation to pound his charge into submission and makes sure he stays on his tempo. Chazell’s script comes from experience, but it could be seen as a cover version of the type of tricks some of the great band leaders – infamously bad-tempered drummer Buddy Rich being one – used to control their bands and stamp their musical authority.
Rushing or dragging? It’s the bandleader who decides.
The film warns of the danger of the ‘good job!’ mentality. “There are no two words more harmful in the English language more harmful than good job,” says the teacher, as he momentarily seems to slow the tempo and become more approachable.
To create great art and great genius, do we really need to push people beyond what’s expected of them, to push them so hard that it’s fine to throw even a metaphorical cymbal at their head to force them to work harder?
This film itself suggests the answer. The director has clearly learned the value of pace, dedication and sheer hard work in using his artistic experiences to fashion a valuable high-tempo work of art.
But his drive to creativity seems to have come from outside rather than within. Great art and great achievements are driven from within and while external forces can help, the maturity and self-awareness of a great creative artist is his or her own worst tormentor.