As usual, if you think you are going to see this, there will be some degree of spoilage here. Further, this review is going to be a little meta for some readers, so there may be some inside jokes that don’t seem like they could make sense in any human society or language, and you would be right … they don’t make sense. They never made sense. They weren’t even jokes … they simply existed to create madness in the same way that certain creatures in the Lovecraft Universe make you go mad. Just sit back and go limp for a little bit.
Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is an exceptionally good drummer and rather than attending college, is attending the Schaeffer Music Conservatory in New York. He lives drumming, and is a part of the school’s second tier jazz ensemble. At night, he practices drumming. One night, he is mysteriously approached by the legendary Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, in his Oscar winning role), who conducts the school’s top flight competitive Studio Jazz ensemble. After hearing him play, he is invited to come in at 6 am and join the Studio band as a backup drummer. Nieman is pleased that his talent has been recognized … so much so that he gains the confidence to ask out the young lady who works the concession counter at the local movie theater where he often goes to watch movies with his dad (played by “where have you been” Paul Resier).
The next day, Andrew is late getting to rehearsal, only to find there is no rehearsal until 9 am. Just before starting, Fletcher interviews Andrew about his family background, and we learn his father is a writer-turned-high school teacher after his mother walked out on the two of them. Fltcher tells him to have fun, and also talks to him about the legend of Charlie Parker … that Parker only became the legendary musician after he was humiliated at an early session, which included the ensemble director nearly killing him by hurling a cymbal at his head). Rehearsals are strictly run, and after the prime drummer has a problem, Andrew is given his shot, after a friendly introduction, Fletcher devolves into a monstrous man, first physically abusing him because he cannot tell if he was off tempo (this is the oft repeated scene across the internets), then using Andrew’s biography to craft public insults about his mother leaving him. He is publicly degraded for crying. Andrew leaves, but manages to return for the next practice.
He has a great first date with the young Nicole, but as his skills grow, despite the insults and browbeating, he decides that a relationship will never work because he will be unable to give any woman the proper time and caring she deserves. Nicole doesn’t take this well.
The ensemble is headed for their first competition. After the first song, the band is resting when the prime drummer hands off the folder of music to Andrew, threatening him not to lose it. Andrew does lose it, and just as they are about to go out, they report the loss to Fletcher, Fletcher tells him to go out anyway, at which point the drummer admits he has not memorized the music. Andrew informs Fletcher that he can do it, and Fletcher, reluctantly, allows him out to play. The ensemble finishes in first place, and on Monday, Andrew is promoted to the prime drumming spot.
Unexpectedly, as a new piece of music is given out weeks later,
Because Terence Fletcher may be a soul stealing monster, but he is a classy soul stealing monster.
Fletcher informs Andrew that he is bringing in a third drummer to compete, a drummer Andrew knows is far inferior. That night at 9 pm rehearsal, the ensembe is informed that a former member, Sean Casey, has died in a car crash, one that hits Fletcher hard because while the rest of the school had ignored his talent, Fletcher had molded the young trumpet player, eventually getting him to the first chair at Lincoln Center. When none of the drummers can keep up with his tempo, Fletcher goes mad, and has them switch off alternating insults, as they spend close to 5 hours switching off until Andrew satisfies Fletcher … at which point the rest of the ensemble is allowed back into the practice room to start practice (Meta insert: I know I am a horrible person, because throughout this intensely dramatic scene I could not help but think back to my band days and hearing “JOEY!!! You’re a beat off! A BEAT OFF!!! This movie was really bad for inducing band flashbacks).
Andrew is now really alone and isolated (the rest of the ensemble blames him for losing the folder and taking over the drum position). At a family dinner, the family gushes over a Division III quarterback and the head of the Model UN, but seems to put down the fact that Andrew is one of the nation’s elite drummers. Madness is starting to set in for Andrew.
Meta: I’m not talking “one salt shaker ruins the barrel” levels of madness … but close.
The ensemble’s next competition is outside New York, and Andrew is delayed when his bus gets a flat, and he has to rent a car to arrive 15 minutes before taking the stage. Fletcher has given away his part, and Andrew finally pushes back. Andrew had forgotten his sticks at the car rental, and rushes to get them, admonished that being late or making any mistakes will result in expulsion. His car is smashed by a semi truck just before arriving back at the theater. He crawls out of the wreck and runs to the stage bloodied and injured. As they start playing, it is clear he cannot keep up due to the injuries he has sustained, and an irate Fletcher must stop the ensemble. After telling Andrew that he is done, Andrew attacks Fletcher on stage.
Fast forward: Andrew has indeed been kicked out of school, and his father has been contacted by a lawyer representing the family of Sean Casey. Fletcher had lied – Casey hadn’t died in a car accident … Casey had committed suicide brought on by extreme anxiety and depression which his family asserts started when he became Fletcher’s student. Andrew decides to quietly provide testimony which results in Fletcher being dismissed.
A few months later, Andrew has packed up his drums, thrown out his jazz recordings, and is working at a coffee shop. He still sees his dad, and they watch movies. One night, he is wandering near a jazz club, and sees that Fletcher is performing. He goes in, and after the performance, Fletcher spots him, and the two sit down for a drink. Fletcher tells him that he is no longer teaching, and that some student from Sean Casey’s year had told some stories that caused his dismissal. Fletcher then tells Andrew that he only tried to push students so that they could be great, and that he wished that the next Charlie Parker would have come through his class. In a world beating down those teachers who push their students to excel, the world has become mediocre, telling Andrew that the worst words in the world are “Good job”. Andrew counters by asking Fletcher if there is a limit? Is there a point of going too far where people get discouraged and walk away? Fletcher responds that there is no limit, because the Charlie Parkers of the world would never give up.
As the pair part, Fletcher informs Andrew that he has been given control of a jazz ensemble that will open the big jazz festival at Carnegie Hall, and that the drummer isn’t working out. Since they will be playing two standards from the Studio days (Caravan and Whiplash), he invites Andrew to join them. Andrew accepts, and pulls the drums out of the closet to prepare.
On the night of the concert, Andrew’s father is in attendance. Andrew goes out on stage, happier and more confident than he has been in months. Just before starting, Fletcher approaches him, and informs Andrew that he knew all along that he had ratted him out. At the microphone, Fletcher announces that before they play the standards, they are premiering a new piece of music. Andrew doesn’t have the music, and from the podium, Fletcher smiles at him. Andrew is completely lost, and doesn’t stop playing after the rest of the ensemble. There is a spattering of applause and Andrew is clearly disappointing. As for the end, I’ll let that go.
As a teacher, one of, if not he single biggest underlying problem in education is that we really don’t push kids much anymore. We do that because we realize that not every student is the next Einstein, Shakespeare, or Charlie Parker. In not pushing, we are more welcoming to those who perhaps aren’t quite talented, but we also may not be properly refining the top end talent. Should high schools push less, while seeing colleges ad universities push harder? Has society in general just become turned off by those who push hard to get results? Is society happier when everyone is more alike (more mediocre)? These are some very interesting questions that have some important consequences across the world. What I really like about this film is that it does not attempt to cleanly provide a single answer (as most films likely would). Instead it poses the questions and asks the viewer to ponder them. Does refining talent at that level require such dedication that it not only costs the individual personally, but perhaps even their humanity/soul? Does it always have to be this way?
There is also this: good teachers try to help students become greater. There are, however, teachers out there who live too vicariously through their students: they see their students’ success as their own personal success. In this film, Fletcher talks about wanting his own Charlie Parker, and this implies that his motives to improve students may not be so pure. Even the ending is not concrete enough to determine his motives. Is Fletcher there to serve the case of jazz music in general, his students, or himself? It isn’t clear, and that is part of what makes this film so great. All of these questions are important in how we treat talent in a society.
Had I seen this film before the Oscars, I would have bet my bank account that J.K. Simmons would walk away with this award. It is wrong to characterize him as a villain, despite the fact that at times he clearly acts that way at times. He is the antagonist. Terence Fletcher is a monster on par with Hannibal Lecter, but unlike Lecter who was deranged, perhaps Fletcher is more in line with something like a hurricane. I think Fletcher sees himself as a force of the natural order of things, and that in the process of nature running its course, there will be destruction in its wake. No one would consider nature evil. It is hard to characterize Fletcher as evil, too. The character is brilliantly written, but the fine nuancing of the character is wholly Simmons, and not enough credit could ever be given for this powerful performance. Oscars aren’t everything, just a single metric, but of the 19 Oscar winning male supporting roles I have seen dating to 1980, I would likely find myself ranking Simmons’ as the top performance if for nothing else that the role required some nuance to not force the audience to automatically fall on one side or the other of these important questions.
For those who have been around long enough, we might remember teachers who pushed a little too hard for whatever reason. Some taught music, some taught European history (though that was likely high blood pressure issues). The film leaves us with those questions:
- When is it acceptable to start pushing harder to inspire learning?
- Who should be treated that way (no one, everyone, the elite)?
- What are the limits? How do we determine those limits? Are they absolute?