Whiplash isn’t just a film about jazz music. It’s a film about genuises, the ugly side of pushing yourself in the domain of art, the monstrous nature of mentorship, and all of that concentrated into a single dose of drug called the struggle for mastery. It’s a film about mastering over something: be it yourself, your master, your student, the art, the band, the obsession, the life.
This film shows in a way an unlikely resemblence to The Master, because it is, like Anderson’s film, essentially a feature-long battle between masters and students on who is the true master. I love the setup: it’s conductor versus drums. In a concert band, the conductor controls how the music gets played, but the drums also dictate how the music goes. The film focuses on this uneasy balance of power. The most memorable scene (chair-flinging scene) is the struggle to establish that power–Simmons’ ruthless conductor uses force to make sure the drums understand he is the ruler on stage. Teller’s drummer, despite holding the most threatening position to that authority, succumbs to the personality of his conductor. This is an ugly struggle and the film does not hesitate to show it visually.
There is of course a certain irony here. The absolute monarch of the band cannot maintain his subject without the help of that one subject who is most likely to undermine his authority. Music is about balance, everyone working together under the same, written plan; without the authority, the band falls apart, but without the band working together, the authority cannot be maintained. The last scene is a perfect, musical way of restoring that balance.
Or is it? The drummer takes the authority in the end. He cues his bandmates while the conductor just moves along. The drummer shows that the conductor, regardless how much he hates him, cannot exist without him. The conductor succumbs to this, and the music is what’s left behind, beating through the end credits.
But I don’t think it’s a personal victory. Of course there is one, the film implies that Teller’s character will have a promising career. But the music–which is the most important point of crossing between the two masters, the two obsessions, the two identities–exists free of those personal triumphs and failures. It is independent of those struggles, and the music, simply, is. From this perspective, the film offers an utopian ending for all–the two ego-centric masters of music turns into slaves of music, obsessed for recreating its perfection. And when that perfection is achieved, it just shows how trivial their personal dramas were.