Guillermo Del Toro has said that there are “one-sock” movies. These “one-sock” films catch you off guard. You start watching as you put on your shoes, about to leave the house, and the movie captures you in such a powerful way that you end up sitting through the entire movie wearing the one sock you managed to get on.
Whiplash, to use Del Toro’s words, was a “one-sock” movie for me. I was so engrossed by the film that I immediately made plans to see it in theaters again. As I write this article, I have just walked out of my second viewing of the film and am texting a friend to schedule a third theater viewing. But why? What is so captivating about it?
Whiplash—nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture—tells the story of nineteen-year-old Andrew, played by Miles Teller, who is a student at New York’s fictional Shaffer Conservatory. Andrew wants to be “one of the great” jazz drummers. At Shaffer, Andrew is brought under the tutelage of Terence Fletcher, played by J. K. Simmons. Fletcher is a ruthless teacher who uses emotional distress, manipulation, and physical brutality to try and pull out the genius in his students.Instead of dismissing the film as just one more story that shows the futility of “worldly” pursuits, we must ask ourselves, “Have I pursued anything as fiercely as Andrew pursues musical excellence?”
Richard Brody, film critic for The New Yorker, argues that the film gets jazz completely wrong. That may be the case; I am not a Jazz scholar, and I am barely a four-chord musician, so I will have to take Brody’s word for it. But even if Whiplash gets jazz all messed up, it tells the parable of the pearl of great price perfectly.
Jesus says in Matthew 13:44, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.” Jesus immediately repeats the story using a different picture in Matthew 13:45-46: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” The point of these parables is that there is something worth abandoning all else for. What is that thing? For Jesus, it is the kingdom of heaven. For Andrew, it is being “one of the greats.”
In the parable of the pearl, we find out that this merchant went and sold all that he had in order to obtain the “one pearl.” Has there ever been a time when your imagination was captured by something in such a fierce way that there was no sacrifice too great in order to obtain that one thing? The merchant is willing to sell everything, and in a similar way, Andrew is willing to forsake everything. Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Fletcher says, “Take up your sticks and get on my tempo.” It is the intensity of our response that is the true account of an authentic pursuit.
In the film, Andrew is so engrossed in obtaining musical brilliance by becoming a drum virtuoso that he rejects friendship, romance, and even the love of his father. For Andrew, everything is simply an obstacle in the way to obtaining musical immortality. Around a dinner table with family, while discussing the genius of Charlie Parker, his Uncle Frank asks him, “So, that’s your idea of success, huh?” Andrew responds, “I think being the greatest musician of the 20th century is anybody’s idea of success. I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was.”
Fletcher is all too willing to encourage this fixation on greatness. He, in what director Damien Chazelle clearly wants us to see as the unveiling of Fletcher’s evil genius, says at one point, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job.’” Instead of applauding mediocrity, the film displays an antagonism towards the mediocre and a reckless affection towards the great. Mediocrity will not be remembered, but greatness endures forever. But there are countless movies in which immortality is the goal of the main character; what makes Whiplash different?
For Andrew, immortality is really just an added bonus to being “one of the greats.” Over and above Andrew’s desire to be stamped in the annals of music history is his pursuit of the ecstatic joy that comes with great playing. He doesn’t just want to be remembered as one of the greatest drummers ever; he wants to enjoy and experience what its like to be taken up in the greatest playing in history.
It’s curious that this movie, which praises self-denial in the pursuit of immortal greatness, is being so widely received. Both Whiplash and the parable of the pearl are counter-cultural stories. They both communicate that there is something worth denying self for. There is some greater prize that is worth selling everything else to obtain.
The film depicts a young man with a desire to take his place among the immortals: Charlie Parker, Buddy Rich, and Joe Jones. But I fear that for many in our culture, the whole notion of greatness is too much. Greatness requires too much sacrifice, and so we elevate the mediocre and saturate the market with it. In the end, many in our culture are not rejecting immortality because of some reasoned consideration but simply by distraction. The problem is not that we have too many people looking for the wrong “pearl”; it’s that we have quit believing that there is any such thing to be sought. When everything is a pearl, we forget the beauty of true iridescence.
Instead of dismissing the film as just one more story that shows the futility of “worldly” pursuits, we must ask ourselves, “Have I pursued anything as fiercely as Andrew pursues musical excellence?” When the world applauds self-denial, let’s join in the applause, and then, let’s point to something worth denying self for: a master who doesn’t drive us to a despairing greatness but disciplines us for our good as children of God, a pearl so stunning that sacrifice is made sweet by its beauty.