Whiplash and Black Swan are both movies about the struggling artist who seeks greatness through sacrifice. In Whiplash it is a drummer named Andrew Neiman, and in Black Swan it is the ballerina Nina Sayers. Andrew is a first-year jazz student at the Shaffer Conservatory in New York, and Nina is a part of the New York City Ballet Company.
Desires & Fears
Both artists desire to become great and well-known, but that is actually too broad and nebulous. What they really want is what is before them. The NYC Ballet just announced they are doing a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. This means new principle dancers. Nina wants to be cast in the lead as the White Swan. But the one cast as the White Swan is traditionally the Black Swan, also, the foil to the White Swan character. Andrew, a drummer, wants to be a part of the Studio Band, the most advanced band on campus.
When we say that Nina desires the role of White Swan and Andrew desires to drum in the Studio Band, we mean much more than a simple want, but a craving and an obsession. The only thing as strong as their desires are their fears. Their fears stem from three places, their parents, their mentors, and the threat of replacement. Nina’s mother, Erica, is a failed dancer and Andrew’s father, Jim, is a failed writer. Both have seen into the world of artistic greatness but for whatever reasons they both fell short. It’s easy to imagine how hard this was for them because they try to protect their children from the same fate. They presume their child will fail like them and try to hold them back in their own ways.
The mentors are just the opposite form the parents. The artistic director for the NYC Ballet is Thomas Leroy and the musical director of the Studio Band is Terence Fletcher. Each of them push their protégés farther than they have even been pushed. This is saying something because each of these young artists push themselves farther than their peers. But by pushing so hard, they may discover what skills they truly possess. Thus, their tutelage is savage and cruel. The challenge for Nina and Andrew is to endure the severity of their mentors and possess the grit to climb on. But each has a rival that makes the threat of being replaced a real danger. For Andrew, it’s the drummer from a lower band he passed up to come to Studio, Ryan, and for Nina it’s the free-spirited dancer, Lily.
Challenges of Body & Mind
There is one terrible fact both artists grasp: they are not ready. In their compulsion to achieve greatness, they realize they need to go beyond their former selves. This takes form as acts of self-destruction. They begin to act uncharacteristically, or even act where some of their more less than desirable attribute move to the fore. Andrew breaks up with his girlfriend because she lacks focus and alienates his family because he would rather be dead and famous, even with a short life and a bad death, than wealthy but someone no one ever talks about. Nina disobeys her mother and goes out to clubs and turns to drinking and drugs and even promiscuity. If the old self is not good enough, then the old self must be destroyed.
This only make sense to the maniac. As you may guess, part of their transformation is a journey into madness. Nina has hallucinations, first of herself and later of Lily. When she sees Lily, it takes the form of fantasy because deep down she knows she needs to be more like Lily. While Nina has the formal precision to dance the White Swan, she lacks the frenetic emotionalism and wild abandon to dance the Black Swan, which is exactly how Lily dances. Nina fantasizes about Lily in order to become like Lily or overcome Lily. These fantastic hallucinations move from erotic to a murder scene that takes place only in her head.
Andrew’s insanity is more subtle. His madness takes the place of falling in line with Fletcher’s abuse. He does fight back against a few of his decisions, but never against his methodology or his cruelness, nor for that matter does anyone else in Studio Band. They have all drunk they Kool-Aide. But his mania is such that while running late for an important gig, he is t-boned by a large truck (does Andrew have whiplash?). He should be in the hospital, but insists on playing. As you can imagine, he is not fit to play and performs horrendously. Fletcher tells him that he is done and Andrew attacks him on the stage. He is kicked out of school and stops playing.
Failure & Success
There is much more that can be said about their slide into insanity, but all of this heads towards the final performances for each, so let’s go there. Still, both are not ready, but just a step away – but what a step it is. Here both fail, the dancer and the drummer.
Nina is cast as the White Swan and is prepared to dance both roles. As the White Swan, Nina is being held up by the Prince. She twitches and he drops her. Backstage at the ballet, Nina has a fight with the former ingénue and stabs her. In truth, she mortally wounded herself, but she doesn’t know this yet. She becomes the Black Swan, complete with feathers and wings, and dances like she had never danced before. After this, she realizes she is wounded and takes the stage one last time as the White Swan for the finale, in which the swan dies. Indeed, the White Swan dies and Nina does as well.
After Andrew attacked Fletcher and got expelled, he reported on Fletcher’s cruelty to the school and Fletcher is fired. Andrew runs across Fletcher in a jazz club and they talk, and in the end, Fletcher invites Andrew to play for a band he has put together. Just as Fletcher’s band takes the stage, he tells Andrew that he knew he had him fired. Fletcher then has the band perform a song for which there was no music for the drum. The band not only had the music, but also had it prepared. It was a tremendous failure of a performance.
Andrew leaves the stage and embraces his father, which in his mid means he is embracing failure. He turns back and sits at the drum kit. Fletcher does not see because he is addressing the audience. Andrew starts playing an aggressive Latin double time swing that introduces one of their songs, Caravan. Fletcher storms over and curses at Andrew, who smashes a cymbal that knocks Fletcher in the chin. He retreats.
The band plays Caravan, which ends with another drum solo. Fletcher nods and even smiles. When a cymbal stand starts to fall over, he sets it back aright. Andrew is playing without fear of failure, but mostly without fear of Fletcher, and Fletcher knows it. During the solo, Fletcher seems satisfies as if all of his effort has paid off and he has finally pushed a student farther than they would have gone on their own and into greatness.
In the end, Andrew kills and Nina dies. But both reached that perfection they stove for all along. And the remaining question is Was it worth it? I’m sure if you asked Andrew, he’d say yes, and even a dying Nina seems to think it was worth it, but remember that this all began with two people who had a desire than ran into the realms of obsession and compulsion. Most people do not reside there. Many of you reading this may like to make it as a novelist. Are you going to succeed without this need and craving? Do you have the grit these two seemed to have? And if you knew beforehand that success would only come through such mean mistreatment and a forfeiture of your sanity, would you still pursue it? These are great questions for any struggling, suffering, sacrificing artist. If you haven’t seen these films, you may want to take a look at them. If nothing else, they are entertaining. It doesn’t even bother you if both go deep. In fact, any movie about a drummer you know it will be cymbalic.