Whiplash: On Creativity and Drive

Yesterday I saw the movie Whiplash, which tells the story of an ambitious young jazz drummer who is accepted into the best music school in the US, and then selected for the elite ensemble of the school’s most highly regarded teacher. Andrew soon discovers that the privilege of working with the charismatic Fletcher has its dark side, whose ‘motivational’ methods include psychologically, verbally and sometimes physically abusive behaviour (and this is not a spoiler – it is evident from the opening scene). Fletcher’s ethos is that nothing damages a talented person’s potential more than praise.

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Whiplash was the most emotionally intense movie I have seen in a long time and raised a lot of interesting questions about creativity, drive and mentorship. Does praise engender mediocrity? Will a true genius rise to the challenge of being relentlessly pushed? Might some students with great potential be discouraged by this teaching method? What is the personal cost of pushing yourself to achieve impossible standards? Are there other ways to help people be their best? One of the things I liked best about this film is that it did not attempt to provide simplistic answers to these complex questions.

I couldn’t help applying the idea to my writing. I imagined the thrill of being selected to be mentored by a writer I greatly admire, then to be publicly and relentlessly criticised for everything I produced. Would it motivate me to work harder? Honestly, I don’t believe it would. A more likely outcome would be that it would cause me to lose all confidence, and give up writing altogether. Does that mean I don’t have the potential for brilliance? If I was a true genius, would I push through the discomfort, give everything just to show this writer what I was made of?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this. And I also encourage you to see this brilliant movie.

10 thoughts on “Whiplash: On Creativity and Drive”

  1. I was strangely drained and exhilarated after this movie, and I’ve never experienced such a vocal reaction from a cinema audience before.

    We talked about it for ages afterwards (a sign of a great movie) and although part of me admired? maybe more like appreciated Fletcher’s motivation, I don’t think there are many people that wouldn’t be crushed by it. And I certainly can’t imagine how a parent would feel learning that their child had been subjected to that.

    It’s an absolutely amazing and compelling movie, best I’ve seen in ages, and I’d recommend it widely but particularly to people with any sort of creative pursuit.

    One of the lingering feelings for me was that my commitment to my art is pathetic – interestingly I’ve been writing quite a lot and certainly more regularly since seeing Whiplash – so perhaps Andrew was my real inspiration.

    And if my recent rejections are any indication of how I would cope under Fletcher’s tutelage, I don’t think I’d even front up. A no thanks email is private, and difficult enough to bounce back from sometimes.

    1. I know exactly what you mean Jen. It was so stressful that I did feel a little exhausted by it, but at the same time, I felt very stimulated. I saw it in an almost empty cinema – what was the reaction in yours? My friend and I also talked about it for a long time and it looks like we came to the same conclusion – in order to produce one ‘Charlie Parker’, how many people got crushed by Fletcher’s methods?

      Like you, I find any rejection or criticism of my work hard to take, so if that criticism was public and accompanied by swearing and high volume, I know for sure I couldn’t take it! However, t’s great to hear that the movie has inspired your own writing.

      Thanks for such an engaged response, and I’m glad there’s someone else who’s been as excited by this movie as I was.

  2. I agree that it was a film that raised a lot of excellent questions and did not give a simplistic answer at the end. The (or maybe ‘a’ ) mark of good art I think.

    A question that it raised for me is whether great fame and great art is worth such misery? Fletcher quotes Charlie Bird Parker who died at the age of 34, probably from the effects of drink and drugs? What price art if it drives the creator to an early grave – or, if to ensure the great artist can be born, you have to bring him/her to such abject pain and misery as Fletcher does to his promising students. If the artist has it within her/him then it should be able to come out by decent nurturing, gentle but firm pushing perhaps, and honest but supportive critique. If this doesn’t do it, then perhaps it’s best left un-drawn out? Is that sacrilegious thinking?

    1. No, I’m with you, Sue, and I think it’s a waste for a genius to push themselves so hard that they die that young. A more moderate path seems wiser to me. I certainly wouldn’t give up someone I loved for writing. My writing is one of the most important things in my life, but it is not the only thing that gives my life meaning, and I wouldn’t sacrifice everything for it.

    2. Hi Annabel and Madam Whisperer,

      Creative artists need to balance self-confidence with self-scepticism; this balance is a mark of the artist’s maturity, and is developed with time, effort, and experience. The great mentors advance the process significantly if you’re lucky enough to find them and sufficiently receptive to them as teachers. On this basis, I think the question of ‘praise’ is genuinely contentious. The question of basic human respect, on the other hand, is not.

      Not having seen the movie, I can only assume that the ‘drum-major’s’ behaviour is genuinely confronting and not merely a well-rehearsed act. The armed forces used to use this technique, as did certain drama teachers. It’s manipulative and cruel, it reduces the learning process to a power struggle, and the sheer brutality involved may damage some peoples’ self-confidence beyond recovery. And whose artistic ‘vision’ is being sought and served by this bullying, exactly? I once acted in two plays which were directed by a tyrant. I did this because I wanted to learn by just being part of the production. I was under no illusion that it was ‘my’ creative expression that he was focussed on with the way he behaved in rehearsals. He wanted a particular result for himself and wouldn’t let up until he got it. That was the deal, and at that time I accepted it for what it was. But if I’d wanted an acting mentor, for my own personal development, he would not have been my choice if I’d known it would have continued in the same way.

      1. Yes, yes and yes, Glen! I agree with everything you’ve said here, particularly about whose artistic vision is being served. Great points. You should watch the movie: I think it would interest you greatly.

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