[Warning: Spoilers Ahead]
Whiplash is the rare refreshing film where form follows function in a way that seems both necessary and unexpected. It is a story that goes beyond the standard three act structure of drama by adding a fourth act wherein it reaches the sublime. The film narrativizes a fundamental thesis in patriarchal culture regarding the father/son (master/apprentice) relationship: the mandate for the son (apprentice) to replace the father (master); thereby, allowing for the reproduction of the paradigm (Star Wars representing one of the most famous examples in Western Pop Culture). The only way the apprentice (son) can transform himself into the master is to break the explicit rules of the master (father) operating to maintain the status quo, in order to paradoxically follow the implicit mandate of all masters--total domination. In other words, the apprentice must apply the lessons of the master (become master of others) in all relationships, not just those outside the proverbial classroom. To follow the logic of mastery to the end, he must usurp the master's role and position. The master hopes his apprentice will somehow exceed him, even if (or perhaps especially if) it means betrayal, in order to fulfill a transcendental purpose that is beyond the immediate understanding of both master and apprentice--this is how they reach the sublime. The key meta-lesson here is that the most important role of any particular iteration or instance of a master is to be an object/obstacle for the apprentice to overcome--this is the only way true masters are made. In the context of the film, this is what it means to be the best, "one of the greats." The meta narrative of the master/apprentice relationship is a variation of the Freudian narrative of the Oedipus complex wherein the son kills the father to take his place. The dynamism of the patriarchal paradigm allows for either outcome to maintain narrative consistency (truth). If Oedipus fails, then the rule of the father is maintained. If Oedipus succeeds, then the rule of the father is still maintained, but in a transcendental way--a way that illustrates the meaning of the rule of the father beyond that of any particular father (figure). It is only by looking back after the fact that we can judge whether or not the rebellious act (usurpation) was justified. That is why such an act, even in fiction, is so powerful when set up correctly. It is an act of pure faith--with no guarantee of outcome or meaning. In Whiplash, the moment that Andrew goes against Fletcher's explicit orders is a moment without any predetermined outcome or meaning and paradoxically it is the moment when he tries to fulfill Fletcher's implicit mandate--to become greater than him by any means necessary. It is a rare narrative moment when multiple outcomes can still hold true to the story and characters.
Those male figures that either never reach for the top or fail to properly overthrow the figure of the father are perpetually stuck in the role of the subordinate (amateur)--they become ersatz father figures never command real authority. Like Andrew's father, Mr. Neimann, these failed pseudo father figures cannot teach their sons how to become true masters because they do not know how to challenge and wield authority. In this film, Andrew's battle to overcome his master, to beat him at his own game, is not without its own perils potentially leading to a fate worse than his father's. As with Icarus, flying too close to the sun can result in (symbolic) death--in this case, the end of Andrew's narrative as a musician. This is not just the dramatization of a master/apprentice (father/son) relationship, it is the narrativization of all master/apprentice (father/son) relationships showing us what every son needs to do in order to escape the shadow of the father while simultaneously reaffirming a transcendental mandate that binds all father figures. There are both celebratory and troubling social implications resulting from this narrative structure--this patriarchal paradigm--but from from an aesthetic viewpoint, Whiplash displays a mastery of poetics that is truly rare.
In the first three acts, Whiplash follows the conventional structure found in most male coming-of-age stories, featuring a master/apprentice relationship, and this alone would have made it a good film. In fact, at the end of Act 3 I found myself waiting for the credits to roll only to realize that the story was not over. The movie kept going as if breaking its mold, and I asked myself--why? What else did the film have to say? Was this just an overly extended Act 3 or was it an entirely new act? In most cases it would have been the former, but thankfully it was the latter. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's talk about Acts 1 through 3. In Act 1 we meet the players, band master/father/mentor Fletcher (JK Simmons) and his musical apprentice/son/mentee Andrew (Miles Teller) and immediately get that Andrew specifically wants to learn from Fletcher so that he can be "one of the greats" (of Jazz drumming, ex. Buddy Rich). The implication is that not all "masters" have what it takes to help their apprentices become the best. That is why Andrew attends Schafer, "the best music school in the country." In Act 2 we get a climax, a conflict, wherein Andrew realizes that his master is working against him--trying to thwart, maybe even destroy him (his music career). In Act 3, we get a resolution when Andrew, with the help of his sympathetic (literal) father, uses the law (the explicit rules of the father) to depose the antagonistic (defacto) father (Fletcher) from his position of authority. That alone would have made for a good movie based on the performances of the two leads and the narrative consistency of the thesis. However, that would have been a very different story about the role of father figures--one without a meta or transcendental aspect. The thesis of a film ending here would've been, beware of "false" father figures that end up doing the opposite of what "true" fathers should do--instead of nurturing their apprentices/sons they end up hurting/destroying them. This is a popular thesis of father/son narratives in a post 9/11 America; wherein, father figures that push too hard and threaten harm are merely predators, like wolves that end up devouring their own cubs. The fear of post 9/11 American pop culture seems to be don't push your kids/subordinates too hard or you'll end up destroying them. The other side of that deterministic coin is that if you work/fight hard enough you will inevitably succeed. The lesson exemplified by movies from the 80s-90s like Rocky I-IV and Die Hard 1-3, is push as hard as you can to succeed. What makes Whiplash unconventional in this regard is that it doesn't settle for either side of that coin--it avoids the trap of a deterministic outcome. In Whiplash, the story doesn't settle for the "don't push too hard" thesis of Act 3, but it doesn't end up in the "push as hard as you can" thesis in Act 4 either. What we get in Act 4 is a radical contingency of outcomes whereby the thesis can only be determined retroactively. What allows Act 4 to reach the sublime is this radical contingency--where the outcome, the end of the story, can go either way (failure or success) and still hold true (narratively and thematically consistent).
In Act 4 of Whiplash, the apprentice has a chance encounter with the "evil" dictator that he helped to depose using the the law. What Andrew learns in this meeting is that he may have removed Fletcher from a position of power in a particular institution (the music school), but that his old master retains true authority in regards to the music world. In other words, Andrew learns the difference between de jure and de facto authority which reflects the difference between explicit and implicit rules of ideology (including patriarchy). Herein lies the crux of the matter, the difference between Fletcher, the implicit father that pushes the pupil to go beyond himself, v. Mr. Neimann, the explicit (biological) father that is overprotective because he never became great himself. Mr. Neimann is overprotective precisely because he doesn't know the benefits that overcoming great hardship can produce. In order for the proverbial son/apprentice to become a new father/master he must accept and overcome harm--even if it comes from the father/master himself. This reveals the paradoxical nature of the father's role in patriarchal society. On the one hand, the father's duty is to protect the son, but only until he is ready for the challenges of manhood. Then he must introduce the son to a world of harm/difficulty/adversity/struggle so that the son can become a new father. Sons that are always sheltered will not become new father figures. [To be clear, I'm not saying I believe in this as a truth about society or human nature. Rather my claim is that this is the ideology the film presents and reproduces in the narrative.]
Getting back to Act 4, Andrew and Fletcher have a conversation that has multiple purposes that are not mutually exclusive. On the one hand, Fletcher tells his story about Charlie Parker's passage into manhood via the threat of harm represented by the chair that was thrown at him. The flying chair is the catalyst for the Charlie Parker character in Fletcher's anecdote--the trigger that makes him work hard to overcome his limitations. This is the truth of Fletcher and his ideology as a master and father figure--he must introduce his apprentice to harm/pain in order for Andrew to grow beyond his perceived limitations. Pain becomes transformative, but not for everyone--only for those with the potential to become the Charlie Parkers of the world. Therein lies the risk. What if you are not one of these butterflies in the making? That is the ethical dilemma that this narrative doesn't address. Is it ethical to crush the majority of people psychologically, emotionally, physically in order to find a a handful of geniuses? Even this question presupposes that pain and hardship are the only ways to unlocking potential. On the other hand, we learn retroactively, that this conversation is also part of Fletcher's plan to get revenge on Andrew and ruin his career forever. The genius of this narrative move, this conversation, is that the Charlie Parker story relies on both purposes to work in order to achieve its full transformative effect whereby it takes on a third purpose. Rather than canceling each other out, these dual purposes of pushing Andrew to become greater than he is and getting revenge on Andrew dovetail into the same purpose--one that is beyond his realization and intention.
In the last scene of the film, we come upon the 2nd and greater climax of the story, wherein Andrew realizes that he has been setup by Fletcher to ruin his career and exact revenge. Andrew exits the stage in apparent defeat and ultimate humiliation back into the arms of his supportive father. That moment could have easily and faithfully resulted in a story about the dangers of bad teachers and unscrupulous father figures that push too hard--reinforcing the conclusion of Act 3 and driving that thesis into deeper ideological depths. In such a hypothetical but real ending, Andrew goes on to do something else with his life--finds a new dream, or he finds another way to fulfill his dream. The possibilities are there but all the paths that stem from this direction do not involve a transformation of his being and subjectivity, especially in regards to authority and power. But fortunately the story doesn't end there. Suddenly Andrew turns around, almost like Orpheus looking back at the path out of Hell and dives right back in. He returns to the stage in direct opposition to and refutation of the explicit instructions of the master father figure, Fletcher. For the first time he goes against the the master's explicit rules (contrary to what you might think, the scene where Andrew attacks Fletcher is not a contradiction to the master's logic) and in doing so he opens the possibility of becoming a new master. To everyone's surprise, Andrew completes his transformation from apprentice to master by usurping the role of authority--band leader--and giving his own commands to the other band members; even to the master/conductor himself. It's not just that he reaches a new level of skill and artistry in his own playing--he becomes the master when his music, his inner subjectivity becomes the glue/logic that binds the band together--that leads them. Thus the 4th Act not only gives Andrew the opportunity to transform into a new master, beyond his former self, but it also functions structurally to break the convention of the standard three act coming-of-age drama. The true climax of the story is at the very end, where everything is at stake, thus reminding us yet again that it isn't over until it's over. It is a beautiful and transcendental moment when one sees a character break his mold and the narrative structure at the same time. This moment is only possible because the narrative up to this point sets up a real possibility of failure. This kind of moment of possibilities is so rare in film (and narrative in general)--moments when the story can truthfully go in multiple directions with radical consequences. That is why the ending retroactively changes the significance of the Charlie Parker story. At first, the Charlie Parker story is one of encouragement. Later, it becomes a tool designed to lure Andrew into a trap. And then a third possibility emerges through Andrew's actions as he changes the meaning of the story to something meta, wherein the new truth of the story incorporates the previous two meanings without contradiction or irony. The third meaning is that the story is the implicit mandate of all masters for their students to go beyond them--to break the (explicit) rules of the master. This event (see Badiou) transforms the Charlie Parker story from being a lure for revenge into an instrument for success (pun intended). Thus it becomes like the first reading, a story of encouragement, but a radically different kind of encouragement. It's the master's command to the pupil not just to become better than him but to overcome him--to take his power and authority (like Obi Wan and Vader--even if it means the master's actual destruction).