Whiplash (2014)

Filmed in only 19 days, Whiplash follows the story of a jazz drummer aspiring to be the best of the best. Director Damien Chazelle was a jazz drummer in his high school. Being in an elite band, his music teacher was harsh on the musicians. His 2014 film is a dramatic reenactment of his experience under the teachings of a ‘musical drill sergeant’.

Whiplash won Academy Awards for Best Editing and Best Sound Mixing at the 2015 Oscars, not to mention another two similar awards at the BAFTA Awards in the same year.

Whiplash has also proved itself as a great film not only in its story, cinematography, and acting but it’s astounding music. Take a listen to “Whiplash” by jazz composer Hank Levy and continue down this journey with us.

The Nature of the Music Industry

Actor Miles Teller starred as Andrew and had his own experiences learning different instruments, including the drums. When asked in an interview about the realism of bleeding when drumming, he replied, “Oh yeah”.

“When I’d be drumming for long periods of time all my drumsticks would be covered in blood and after I started rehearsing and practicing a lot I did start getting blisters. You know I was using a lot of band-aids and there was a lot of blood.”

Andrew’s drumkit and drumsticks turn bloody after practice.

Terence Fletcher was largely based on a teacher that Chazelle had when he was practicing drumming. Unfortunately, abuse towards students is common in music education with many cases of bullying and emotional manipulation, some manifesting into sexual abuse.

In Whiplash, Terence Fletcher is the teacher of an elite band at Scaffer Conservatory. Besides the feedback that he gives about his students’ musical performance, he brings his lecturing to another level with his downright rude and unnecessary comments about his student’s character.

Fletcher emotionally manipulates Andrew, giving him high hopes in one moment and breaking everything down in the next. Andrew believes that approval from Fletcher means more than anything to him. He tolerates the endless amounts of abuse as Fletcher gaslights him into thinking that suffering is the only way to succeed.

The New York Schaffer Conservatory is the setting for Whiplash, a fictional elite music school that Andrew attends. It is very possible that Schaffer is based on Julliard, especially with the classroom scene being shot on location at the school itself.

Tough Love?

One of Fletcher’s most iconic lines

Everyone has been yelled at, whether by their parents, their teacher, or a senior. The idea of tough love is to be harsh on someone to make them truly realize their errors or to push someone to a greater potential.

To some extent, suffering does make you more skilled. Failures and mistakes build a person to be better. However, the trauma that Fletcher likes to parade around in hopes to groom great artists could be highly debatable. 

How much is too much? The unnecessary bullying that comes with teaching can cause mental issues down the line, no matter how ‘effective’ the trauma may be. There have been multiple cases of people losing interest in their craft due to the harsh treatment that they have suffered.

What is the Definition of Success?

Fletcher tells Andrew a story about a famous jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, a story which will stick in Andrew’s mind throughout the film. 

Charles Parker, an infamous American jazz saxophonist.

Charlie Parker once played so poorly that drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head which nearly decapitated him. Because of the humiliation and intimidation that he experienced, Parker practiced so long and so hard that he made history with his solo a year later.

Even though that may not be a real story, the idea of suffering for success is drilled into Andrew’s mind. Andrew ‘shows his dedication’ to his craft when he breaks it off with Nicole to focus on his dream of being the best drummer in the world.

Andrew and Nicole on their first date.

It is hard to know whether breaking up with Nicole really would have hindered his dreams but that was one of Andrew’s first steps in giving away his life for success.

Charlie Parker had a hard dependence on drugs and even attempted suicide once. He died in 1955 at the age of 34 due to pneumonia. 

To be remembered after death but to sacrifice your own happiness when alive. Or, live a mellow life with only your friends and family to remember you. This is the big question that is debated in Whiplash. 

As I browse through the opinions of different professionals, Whiplash may not be the most accurate representation of life as a music student. I personally think that the film’s core message is quite thought-provoking.

I believe that the idea of success and happiness is subjective. Although Andrew is living a life of potential suffering, the drive for success is what makes him happy (presumed by his smile at the end of the film). As someone who plans to live a calmer existence, it is a great surprise to me how many people prefer such a life. 

Anything could be happiness and success as long as it is defined by one’s own terms.

Opinions from SGNewWave Members:

On sound design in the film – Athletes enter this zone where everything slows down. When they are at their peak, a lot of athletes can tell you that they hear nothing but they can feel everything. When everything quiets down, that comes with the musician’s high. It’s performance adrenaline.” – Yanlin

On finding success –  “There’s a difference between pushing yourself and allowing yourself to get abused to become better. You can push yourself but you need to draw a line somewhere.” – Jeremiah

Favourite things about Whiplash:

The story was very foreign to me but I thought it was interesting. I liked the climax. It kept me on the edge of my seat.

I was shocked by the ending.

My least favourite thing was that it reminded me of my dancing instructor. But, I thought the film was powerful in showing the lengths that people will go through for success.

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