Brow Beat

What Whiplash Gets Wrong About Genius, Work, and the Charlie Parker Myth

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in Whiplash.

Photo by Daniel McFadden © Sundance Institute

This post discusses the ending of Whiplash.

Perhaps the most crucial moment in the thrilling, Oscar-buzzed, and almost universally acclaimed new movie Whiplash comes early on, when the drill sergeant-like conductor Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) asks his driven young student Andrew (Miles Teller) to play the Hank Levy composition that gives the movie its title. Fletcher’s jazz orchestra, we’re told, is one of the best in the country, and Fletcher himself is incredibly exacting, demanding that Andrew play the 7/4 piece not a hair behind or ahead of his tempo. After stopping Andrew several times, Fletcher finally walks over to a metal chair and flings it at Andrew’s head.

The scene is important not just because it establishes the lengths of Fletcher’s perfectionism and his abusive methods. It also parallels the story of Charlie Parker and Jo Jones told again and again in the film. As Fletcher and Andrew both tell it, the young Parker was once playing with drummer Jo Jones when he made a mistake and Jones hurled a cymbal at his head, nearly decapitating him. In response to this violent gesture, Parker began a period of obsessive practice that made him into one of the greatest musical geniuses of the 20th century.

The parallels are not lost on the abusive Fletcher and his dedicated pupil. For the rest of the movie, Fletcher pushes Andrew further and further, through blisters and bloody fingers and away from girlfriends. In one of the film’s more over-the-top touches, Andrew runs off to a performance just minutes after a bloody car crash. All because both Fletcher and Andrew believe this is what it takes to make another Charlie Parker. At the end of the movie, Andrew has his artistic breakthrough: Commandeering a concert hall performance conducted by Fletcher, he gives an impressive, sweaty, and “Moby Dick”-length drum solo that culminates in the rapturous approval of not just the audience but, finally, Fletcher.

This ending is meant to be a provocation. At first I wondered whether the final scene was created as a possible dream sequence, an anxiety-driven descent into madness. But writer-director Damien Chazelle has made it clear that he intends Andrew’s performance to be a triumph—at least artistically, if not for his general well-being. Andrew becomes the kind of “great musician” he has long talked about becoming, Chazelle told Indiewire’s Anne Thompson. There is still moral ambiguity, though, because he won’t be “a very happy or fulfilled one.” According to Chazelle, musical genius requires this kind of strict, almost military-style training, and “one really can’t exist without the other.” Chazelle’s central question becomes, then, “Do we accept that the ends justify the means?

It might seem, at first, like a provocative question, one that takes aim at the culture of trophy kids and the parents who spoil them with positive reinforcement. As Fletcher says towards the end of the movie, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.”

But it’s the wrong question. A question whose phrasing is so reductive, and whose premise is so distorted, that it risks justifying the abuse that some teachers inflict on their students and some students inflict on themselves.

Charlie Parker at Carnegie Hall
Charlie Parker at Carnegie Hall, ca. 1947.

Courtesy William P. Gottlieb Collection

The real story of the cymbal, at least as it’s been told over and over again in biographies and in the press—most famously in Ross Russell’s 1973 Bird Lives!—reveals how Whiplash distorts the Parker legend to fit its twisted premise. Jones didn’t throw the cymbal at Parker’s head. He threw it at the floor around his feet, “gonging” him off. In other words, it was not an episode of physical abuse. Perhaps more importantly, according to the usual Parker lore, he wasn’t so much following the charts as flying off them, modulating into unusual keys, and demonstrating the kind of daring improvisation that would revolutionize the art form (though many versions of the story do say that he eventually lost his key). The humiliation of Jones’ gesture did help motivate Parker to keep practicing, but creative genius is more than discipline and how-fast-can-you-play athleticism. There would always be older players, like Louis Armstrong, who wished he would stick to more traditional playing.

The movie fudges the story—though many reviewers seem to have taken it at face value—to support the case for the methods of an emotionally and physically abusive teacher. But this version of the tale doesn’t reflect where genius really comes from. A mounting body of evidence shows that no amount of practice, whether 10,000 hours or 20,000 hours, guarantees true genius. Instead, it also matters how early you start, whether you’re in the right place at the right time, and how much talent you have in your genes. (Whiplash makes a point of having Fletcher ask early on whether either of his parents were musicians; they weren’t.)

Most Americans believe that hard work is the key to success, and they’re likely to go along with Whiplash’s Rocky-with-drumsticks tale because of it. But creativity isn’t just a matter of tallying up practice hours, musicianship isn’t just athleticism, and it doesn’t take flinging deadly objects at someone to motivate them. In all likelihood, Fletcher isn’t making a Charlie Parker. He’s making the kind of musician that would throw a cymbal at him.