The trauma of becoming exceptional

by

Special To The Japan Times

Long before it won three Oscars and was nominated for best picture, “Whiplash” about the mesmerizing and often inexplicable relationship between a music student and his demonically obsessive teacher— had created a big stir in Japan. Media darling and California-based film critic Tomohiro Machiyama called it “a masterpiece, and so gripping that it scared me a little,” while jazz musician Naruyoshi Kikuchi wrote it off as a “laughable and cartoonish piece of addictive junk food.”

As elsewhere in the world, Japanese critics have fallen over themselves to give “Whiplash” (which opens in local cinemas on April 17 as “Session”) the highest praise. On the flip side was the media’s censoring of professional musicians who griped about the film’s so-so portrayal of music technique and the fierce, over-the-top fanaticism demonstrated by music school teacher Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Online, such discussions went viral and helped fan the flames that quickly grew into a towering inferno — “Whiplash” struck a nerve in Japan.

It had all the right trimmings to raise eyebrows: a 28-year-old writer/director, a shoestring budget and audacity to spare. Director Damien Chazelle even trained his lead actor, Miles Teller, to play jazz drums in the space of three weeks before shooting began.

The film tells the story of Andrew (Teller), a freshman at a famed music conservatory in New York (likely modeled on the real-life Juilliard School), who is an aspiring jazz drummer. He comes under the tutelage of the school’s most revered and feared instructor, Fletcher, who is relentless, abusive and even physically violent — all in the name of musical excellence and a personal mission to find the next Charlie Parker. Andrew begins as a nice kid from New Jersey, but his contact with Fletcher turns him into a jazz monk who will sacrifice everything at the altar of his god if it means a ticket into the magic brotherhood of jazz greats. To this end, he ditches a sweet girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) and turns his back on a loving, supportive dad (Paul Reisser). Fletcher hardly seems to notice Andrew’s transformation, and instead eggs him on, demanding more and more of Andrew’s worshipful commitment and absolute dedication. During all-night practice sessions, Andrew’s hands and drums become covered in his blood, to which Fletcher barks angrily, “Wipe that blood off my drums.”

Saxophonist Naruyoshi Kikuchi may have been right:”Whiplash” often comes off as a breathless page-turner of a motion-picture manga, packed tight and explosive. This is the kind of story Japanese love to love, probably because most of us have known and grown up with at least one Fletcher in our lives.

For me, it was a volleyball coach in middle school. Virulently abusive, this coach could reduce the team captain to tears with a single glare. He once told us that if we lost, he would have us expelled after trampling on our useless hands. He was a nightmare, but a familiar one — all over Japan, kids and teens and young salarymen spend a significant chunk of their lives dealing with their own versions of Fletcher.

The Fletchers of postwar Japan had less to do with striving for excellence than societal motivation triggered by defeat. We had to endure the daily torrent of blood, sweat and tears or sink into poverty and humiliation. The only redemptive antidote was effort, effort and more effort.

“Whiplash” is semi-autobiographical and Chazelle, who was a jazz drummer in high school, encountered a teacher who later inspired him to create the character of Fletcher.

In an interview with The Japan Times, Chazelle says he didn’t think the Japanese had the market cornered when it came to the “obsessive quest for greatness” — it was very much “a byproduct of the American dream, however you want to define that” he says.

“I mean, it’s one of the most defining factors of America. It’s such a competitive culture and we’re taught to respect the person who pulls himself up by the bootstraps. Still, people of my generation tend to want to find a balance: Striving for greatness, but also wanting happiness and fulfillment. Andrew starts out by wanting that balance but Fletcher give him no choice, and he succumbs to the temptation to give in to his mentor,” says Chazelle.

Later in the film Andrew briefly tries to reconnect with his former self, to a time when he was less obsessed with jazz and drums. But when that doesn’t work, you see the relief spread over his face — a telling scene, which Chazelle struggled with.

“I wrote and rewrote that scene because it was so important. That was the scene when Andrew could finally admit to himself that nothing else mattered as much as playing jazz. He knew what he was going to do, and he could now eliminate all other distractions — that was the final nail in his coffin. Andrew was truly alone in that coffin, and that was both scary and really exhilarating.”

With Chazelle’s history as a jazz drummer, was “Whiplash” an chance for him to exorcize past demons?

“Well, that period was certainly traumatic for me,” says Chazelle. “For a long time I had nightmares, but I learned to recognize the patterns in the conflict, and to know where it was all going.”

Fletcher’s declaration that the two most harmful words in the English language are “good job” is also something Chazelle got from his teacher.

“I think, though, that Fletcher is the person who lives inside all of our heads — he keeps screaming at us to keep pushing ourselves and not settle. That’s not necessarily bad or evil, but I wanted to show what happens when you take that too far, and you let the voice dominate your whole life.”