Here’s what we class as a modern classic. From 2014, it’s a visceral drumming epic about… the drums. And jazz. Plus, shouting! That sort of stuff.
Director Damien Chazelle also wrote this tale, which is about a budding young drummer and his positively unorthodox bandleader Terence Fletcher.
Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) wants to be the next Buddy Rich. After winning a place at Shaffer Conservatory (a fictional music place), he appears to be on his way.
Especially when the famed Fletcher (J. K. Simmons in Oscar-winning form) spots him practicing, sees something in the kid, and decides to train him up.
At first, Fletcher seems like a kindly debonair bloke. The problem is he’s also a bit of a foul-tempered, bullying lunatic.
Kind of like R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. But with more jazz.
And he often finds that others can’t quite find the form he wants. To which he now famously quips, “Not quite my tempo.”
This is especially the case during a rehearsal of Hank Levy composition Whiplash, used on Don Ellis’ 1973 album Soaring.
What follows from there is a relentless bout of psychological punishment, with various drummers competing to be in Fletcher’s band thanks to his outstanding reputation.
But he plays games with them, manipulates, verbally abuses, and generally turfs them around like expendable turds.
For his part, Neiman sticks with it and becomes increasingly combative. Often resisting and battling with Fletcher.
The jazz teacher’s goal, he later confirms, is to push his students to the absolute limit—near breaking point, so they can reach the highest possible standard.
That’s kind of in line with Apple’s Steve Jobs who famously said, “The worst thing you can say to an employee is, ‘Good job’.”
Not a one-size-fits-all situation, Mr. Jobs. If we have an employer like that we sod off elsewhere and take our skills with us *smug grins*.
Anyway, after much exhaustion and battling Neiman is able to win his spot as drummer in Fletcher’s big band. Sort of.
But by this point, he’s getting pretty frantic and is pushing himself too hard. A potential relationship with a young lady collapses as he’s too busy drumming.
Ultimately, he becomes increasingly, wildly infatuated with winning the respect of Fletcher. Even though he comes to hate his guts.
In what we consider one of Whiplash’s missteps, he’s also involved in a violent car crash when rushing to make it on time for rehearsals.
Mildly concussed and bloody, he staggers off to the venue and attempts to play. It’s just a tad far-fetched.
Anyway, he and Fletcher come to blows and the pair of them are separated for the good of their health. Meanwhile, the teacher is fired for his volatile methods.
However, the pair do eventually meet back up again and Neiman attempts to get an amicable relationship back on the cards.
After piecing things back together, Fletcher offers the young drummer another chance at performing in his new band.
And that leads to the film’s famous conclusion, where he drums the bejeezus out of his kit. Finally winning over Fletcher in the process.
Voila! There’s your film. As drumming fans, we found it all rather riveting entertainment. Especially as we’re jazz drumming aficionado sorts.
However, the film was a smash critical hit regardless of its niche subject matter.
Now, you could even argue Whiplash is up there as a modern classic—it’s bloody good!
Central to it all is J. K. Simmons’ excellent performance as Terence Fletcher. That won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
Miles Teller is also in strong form as the young man slowly losing control in pursuit of his dream. To drum dead good.
Teller does, of course, play the drums in real life and did much of the performances you hear in Whiplash (with the help of editing).
And the sparring of these two works really well together. If they didn’t have such good chemistry, the film would have flopped. But they’re fantastic, so kudos to both of them.
It’s also led to film fan debates about Fletcher’s actions—was his mentoring abuse necessary to make Neiman a world-class drummer?
Seeing as it almost killed the poor lad, you could argue otherwise. Or for Fletcher’s approach, in the Steve Jobs way of things, did make the man. Did it!?
It’s one of the great things about this film—and cinema in general. It makes you discuss something earnestly. Good conversation. Mind expanding. Drums!
Thankfully, Whiplash was also a commercial hit. Off its relatively tiny budget of $3.3 million, it went on to make back a cool $49 million. Rock on!
So, we nod to you Hollywood. Fund more films like this please.
Backlash From the Jazz World
The jazz community didn’t respond well to the film. And some movie critics were also pretty unhappy about it.
In October 2014, Richard Brody in the New York Times wrote a scathing piece called Getting jazz right in the movies:
"The movie’s very idea of jazz is a grotesque and ludicrous caricature."
Having spent decades hailing Buddy Rich as a genius, some of the jazz community got annoyed about the film’s assertion he’s the drummer to aspire to.
And that, thank you very much, the jazz community will decide who the best jazz drummers are.
Generally, as more casual fans of jazz (but big fans of the genre’s drummers), we have to note there’s a great deal of snobbery in the community. Brody writes:
"Buddy Rich? A loud and insensitive technical whiz, a TV personality, not a major jazz inspiration. As I heard his name in the film, I spoke it in my head as dubiously as Leonardo DiCaprio says 'Benihana' in 'The Wolf of Wall Street.'"
And he concludes with the following put-down of Whiplash:
"Whiplash honors neither jazz nor cinema; it’s a work of petty didacticism that shows off petty mastery, and it feeds the sort of minor celebrity that Andrew aspires to. Buddy Rich. Buddy fucking Rich."
Now, we can’t agree with that. As Rich’s skill and mastery of the drums is easy to see in the various clips of him online.
Yes, he was apparently difficult to deal with. His short temper is one of the inspirations for Fletcher’s character.
Rich’s musicians got so fed up of his ranting they secretly recorded a few of his volatile sessions for posterity in the 1980s.
The drummer did have a sense of humour about it, though, realising he could be unnecessarily difficult.
On his death bed, one of his last requests was to listen to one of the recordings.
And, yes, Rich became a celebrity. In the way Stephen Hawking became a celebrity physicist. That doesn’t detract from his drumming abilities.
Whiplash doesn’t offer a thorough examination of the inner broodings and workings of jazz musicians. It’s, after all, supposed to be entertaining. Over in 90 minutes.
But it’s a homage to the brilliance of jazz at its best—and the exceptional skill of the very best drummers who make it to the top.
Getting snotty about that and saying it doesn’t honour anything is verging on pretentious, we feel. So just watch the film and enjoy instead, eh?