Whiplash – Movie Discussion

whiplash 2

Whiplash is an intriguing story about a young, gifted drummer, Andrew, and Fletcher, the brilliant, if somewhat sadistic conductor of an elite jazz band. Their relationship is complicated. Fletcher is a brutal master, hard to please and harsh. He works in humiliation and fear. In his quest to discover and develop masterful talent, he pushes many of his students over the edge (even to the point of suicide). Yet, in a Stockholm Syndrome kind of way, Andrew never stops longing for, working for Fletcher’s approval. He is torn in his feelings for Fletcher. Is he wrong to push so hard? Or is he just doing what it takes to get the best out of his musicians? Andrew waivers on this point, after providing evidence the school needs to fire Fletcher, he then volunteers to play for Fletcher again…and in the end, he is brilliant. Fletcher publically and intentionally humiliates him in a performance (retribution for getting him fired), but then, in a one of those defining moments, Andrew stands up to Fletcher. He was either going to quit and let the bully win, or he was going to defy him and be great. He chose the latter, earning even Fletcher’s begrudging respect. Which brings us to the question, was Fletcher right all along? Was he justified in his actions?

I guess, first I should state that the question matters. It matters to life, to parenting, teaching, coaching, mentoring…even our relationship with God. It’s a question of motivation. How do you get the most and the best out of someone? How do you help someone become great?

Here is the dialogue between Fletcher and Andrew, when Fletcher explains and defends his course of action.

Fletcher: I don’t think people understand what it was I was doing at Shaffer. I wasn’t there to conduct. Any…moron can wave his arms and keep people in tempo. I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that is an absolute necessity. Otherwise, we’re depriving the world of the next Louis Armstrong, the next Charlie Parker. …I told you about how Charlie Parker became Charlie Parker? Andrew: Joe Jones threw a cymbal at his head. Fletcher: Exactly… he’s a pretty good sax player… [screws] it up… and Jones nearly decapitates him for it, and he’s laughed off stage. Cries himself to sleep that night, but the next morning, what does he do? He practices and he practices and he practices, with one goal in mind: never to be laughed at again. And a year later he goes back …steps on that stage and he plays the best…solo the world has ever heard. So imagine if Jones had just said, “Well that’s OK, Charlie. That was all right. Good job.” – end of story, no Bird. That, to me, is an absolute tragedy. But that’s just what the world wants now, and they wonder why jazz is dying. … Every Starbucks jazz album just proves my point, really. There are no two words in the English language more harmful than, “Good job.” Andrew: But is there a line? Maybe you go too far and discourage the next Charlie Parker from becoming Charlie Parker? Fletcher: No, man, no. Because the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged. … The truth is, I never had a Charlie Parker, but I tried.

Did it work? Yes, actually. I think that’s what makes this movie so intriguing. No one wants Fletcher to win. We don’t want his fear tactics and bullying and cruelty to work. But they do. At least in regards to Andrew. Never mind the fact that other potential greats wilted, quit music and some even quit life because of Fletcher—Andrew rose to the occasion and became the next Charlie Parker. There are actually plenty of stories in the world of people who were motivated by something negative to become something great—take Vince Papale, for example, who was motivated by his ex-wife’s letter saying he would never become anything.

The question isn’t so much whether fear and shame can motivate, but whether they are the only and/or the best ways to motivate. Instinctively, we feel there must be something better, else we would not recoil so at Fletcher. The truth is, the Bible says there is another, better way—and it’s called love. It was because of love that Jesus was willing to give his life. He obeyed his Father even to death on the cross, because of love, not fear. He said the two greatest commands in the whole Bible have to do with love—loving God and loving others. Not only that, but if love and fear were to be pitted against each other, love would win the battle, because “perfect love casts out fear.”[1] Fear is never as strong as love and it will never be as good a motivator as love.

Fletcher said that they most harmful two words in the English language were “Good job.” It is true, they have become overused, and often aren’t spoken in truth. This is a problem because when someone is told they have done a good job when they haven’t, they know it’s a lie. This breeds fear. They become afraid that they will be exposed as a fraud—the truth that they have only done acceptably or even poorly, and have not done truly well, weighs on them. They begin to think that the truth is something which cannot be spoken, something to hide from, because others aren’t speaking it. They are afraid of exposure just as much as they are afraid of failure, because they haven’t learned how to accept the reality of where they are and to grow from it, even if that reality is failure. Failure is not the ultimate evil because failure can lead to growth when faced bravely. Unfortunately, many well-meaning people, in an endeavor to be encouraging, are teaching the younger generations to have an improper, untrue view of what a “good job” is…and it’s debilitating.

My favorite teacher once said that he “hoped we never felt good about ourselves” in his class. That was a shocking statement for our young egos in the midst of the burgeoning self-esteem movement. He went on to explain, fortunately. He said that he “hoped we learned to feel right about ourselves” in his class. “Many of you feel bad about things you shouldn’t feel bad about—you don’t think you’re pretty enough or smart enough…you are comparing yourselves to others in ways that aren’t good. On the other hand, many of you feel good about things you should actually be feeling badly about. You are doing things you shouldn’t be doing and have no remorse. My goal in this class isn’t to make you feel good about yourself, but to help you feel and think right about yourself, which means learning to see yourself the way God sees you.”

I may agree with Fletcher that “Good job” has become an overused phrase and lost some of its meaning, but that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. To say to someone that they have done well when they haven’t is a lie, therefore the fault is not with the phrase “Good job,” but with the speaker who has used it falsely. Used in truth, however, and especially when used in a context of love, it can be the most motivating, beautiful, powerful phrase in the English language. It is the very thing God the Father spoke of his son. “This is my son, in whom I am well pleased.”[2] God was publically stating that Jesus had done a good job.  Jesus later tells the parable about the three servants. Their master tells them, “Well done, good and faithful servant”[3] and then he entrusts them with even more because they had done well with what they had. Well, except for the one who did not do a good job—for that one he spoke the truth, called him lazy and evil and took away all that was entrusted to him.

Jesus didn’t tell someone they’d done well if they hadn’t, but he also didn’t withhold praise when they had. That was Fletcher’s mistake (one of them). He may have been right to withhold praise when it wasn’t deserved, but he went too far, never acknowledging when a student had done well. Andrew never knew if he had done well. He never knew if Fletcher was pleased…and he longed to please Fletcher. All he did was for the simple hope of hearing Fletcher say, “Good job.” Maybe that’s why Andrew ultimately succeeded. He didn’t let fear win. He chose to be motivated by praise, not fear or shame. Fear and shame drove him to quit. A desire to please drove him to go back again and do well. Or maybe it was a desire to prove Fletcher wrong—that’s part of the mystery of the movie and is certainly up for interpretation. In either case, Fletcher certainly missed out on the better way to motivate his students. Fear and shame may drive someone to their death, but only love will inspire them to lay down their life. And when there is love, the desire to please the beloved, to hear the beloved say “Good job” is one of the most powerful motivators known to man.

Questions for Discussion:

  • What did you think about Fletcher?
  • What would you have done in Andrew’s shoes?
  • Why do you think Andrew went back to play for Fletcher again?
  • Have you ever had an authority figure in your life like Fletcher? Have you ever had anyone try to motivate you by shame, fear and bullying?
  • Which is more powerful, do you think—shame/fear/bullying, or love—as a motivating force?
  • Fletcher said “Good job” was harmful. Do you agree or disagree?
  • Do you think Andrew would have become as good if Fletcher had encouraged and praised him?
  • The Bible says that perfect love casts out fear. What do you think that means? How might Andrew have been different if he’d felt love from Fletcher instead of fear? Is there anything in your life that you are afraid of? How might God’s perfect love help you not fear?

[1] 1 John 4:18

[2] Matthew 3:17

[3] Matthew 25:14-30

Click here to read quotes from Whiplash.


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