Whiplash is a real-life 1973 jazz tune composed by Hank Levy and performed by Don Ellis and his orchestra. The song is characterized by an up-beat trumpet melody and unconventional 7/4 time signature. It is notorious among jazz musicians for being very difficult to perform, particularly for the drummer.
The song is featured prominently in the movie and represents the brutality, complexity, and rigor the main character must meet head-on in order to succeed.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) is a freshman drummer at a prestigious music school in New York City, and he has big dreams of becoming the next Buddy Rich. After an awkward encounter with the school’s most feared jazz music teacher, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), Andrew is invited to play with the studio band. Whatever small confidence boost Andrew gets from this honor is shattered, however, when Fletcher becomes enraged and physically abusive towards Andrew in front of the entire class. And, even though Andrew practices every day until his fingers literally bleed, the abuse just gets worse. But Andrew refuses to give up.
This is the kind of movie that stayed with me long after I watched it, especially the monologue Fletcher gives toward the end of the movie. He explains that legendary musicians aren’t produced in a vacuum, and adversity—especially from mentors—is the only way good musicians become great.
“I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them,” he says. “I believe that is an absolute necessity […] There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.”
Now, I still don’t know what to think about this idea. But I really like how
Whiplash will spark debate—some of it angry—over whether [writer-director Damien Chazelle] is vindicating Fletcher’s methods, suggesting that only a harsh taskmaster can push Andrew to the next level. I don’t think he’s that conclusive. But he’s certainly leaving the question open. When you read Jan Swafford’s exhaustive new Beethoven biography or listen to world-class musicians or Olympic athletes talk about their driving parents and lack of a “real” childhood, you see how pushing kids to the brink can in some cases pay off. It can also—more often—be inhuman, soul-killing, even criminal; it can screw people up for life.
In any case, this is an emotional story with a great soundtrack.
Rated R for language and violence.