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Whiplash: The Reality of Being a Professional Musician

Damien Chazelle’s 2014 film Whiplash aims to expose how competitive music students have to be to have success. After all, only a handful of musicians can hold spots in the world’s best ensembles. Finding perfection isn’t a happy journey, which we see from our main character Andrew Neiman, played by Miles Teller. If you’re attending a top music school, the competition is cutthroat. Every musician wants the first part, the most solos, and to be the best. It’s a tough world and Chazelle doesn’t try to hide it. 

Whiplash takes place at the fictional Schaffer Music Conservatory in New York, where Andrew Neiman is a freshman drummer with big dreams. Top jazz professor Terrence Fletcher overhears Andrew’s practicing and takes notice of his talent. Within seconds of meeting, Fletcher puts him to the test by demanding a double-time swing then walking out without comment. Later, he places Andrew in the top jazz band to give him a chance at true stardom but the pressure is immense. Once his passion for greatness becomes too strong and Fletcher’s teaching becomes too abusive, Andrew quickly begins to lose his sanity. 

Simply, this film is a classic underdog story. We want to root for Andrew from the beginning because we can see how much potential he has. The audience gets a great background story that makes him instantly lovable: a close relationship with his father, a naive crush on the movie theater girl, and a dream for a life greater than his current one. He’s insecure yet somehow confident at the same time. Throughout the film, Andrew is vulnerable to Fletcher’s nonstop physical and mental assaults. As is typical of a victim, he blames himself for his faults instead of realizing his professor expects the unobtainable. As Whiplash plays out, we have to watch Andrew slowly inch toward a breakdown. 

Fletcher plays the role of the venomous antagonist for having a cruel militant teaching style that does more harm than good to his students. As the professor, he is supposed to help aspiring musicians gain the skills they need to succeed. Instead, he has become too belligerent and power-hungry, expecting so much of students that music becomes miserable. The students can’t perform well in a high-stress environment but don’t have another choice. The “nothing short of perfect” approach has created a toxic and fearful environment that makes it difficult for musicians to thrive. Although Fetcher does motivate Andrew to become a better drummer, it comes at the expense of his mental stability. Sanity is too high a price to pay for greatness. Wanting students to reach their full music capabilities isn’t an excuse for abuse of power. 

With these determined roles, it’s no surprise Fletcher and Andrew have a final “fight” scene in which Fletcher gives Andrew the wrong music before a performance. When the film suggests Fletcher had the upper hand by humiliating Andrew during the song, suddenly the plot twists into an opportunity to showcase his talent. Instead of accepting that Fletcher had given him the wrong music thus, being completely unprepared, Andrew took control over the situation by playing a killer solo and instructing Fletcher to begin the song “Whiplash.” Andrew beat his professor, his nemesis, at his own game. More than just defeating him, Andrew was able to have a musical and mental comeback. 

J. K. Simmons expertly plays Terrence Fletcher, drawing the audience to his character despite his vile attitude. As the conductor of the top jazz band, he has perfect expectations for all of his students but takes it too far. When they aren’t playing to their full potential, Fletcher gives his full wrath, which can include slapping, throwing chairs, and mental torment. Anticipating perfection all the time sets each rehearsal up for disaster. 

There is some reasoning behind Fletcher’s methods, despite his actions being inexcusable. After leaving Schaffer and leading another jazz band, he tells Andrew that the two most dangerous words in the English language are “good job.” Fletcher was determined to drive every student to be the next greatest musician by saying they can never play perfect enough. If students are constantly worried about being cut from the band, as he makes them feel, then fear drives them to practice. But, at what point does pushing someone to their best turn into abuse? We see Fletcher crossing this line throughout Whiplash. His tyrannical mistreatment has been masked for tough teaching, but clearly, he has a devastating impact. Even if Andrew can’t see Fletcher’s manipulation, it was a major aspect of the film. 

So, is this what it’s like to attend music school? In short, Whiplash does an acceptable portrayal. Music performance is no joke, and there are only spots for the top musicians who put in the countless hours of practice to be there. Andrew would have to practice for hours each day to maintain stamina and improve his drumming skills. In any jazz band, it is the drummer’s responsibility to maintain tempo so it’s accurate he would have to practice playing the same rhythm over and over. Musicians play their instrument out of love but practicing can be frustrating, discouraging, and even painful. Andrew pushes himself until his hands are bleeding because he can’t be satisfied. The slight gore may be exaggerated for the audience’s benefit, but musicians tend to push their bodies to produce the musical sound they want. Music school is countless hours of practicing and endless dedication, as Whiplash portrays. 

Whiplash is considered one of the favorable music genre films for its accuracy of the stress of being a professional musician, which Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons beautifully illustrate. Andrew Neiman was a vulnerable drummer that fell in love with being perfect and quickly became obsessed. Fletcher’s insults only drove Andrew further into his self-hatred and caused his eventual breakdown. This film shows the level of dedication taken to be a professional musician while presenting an unhealthy teacher-student scenario. Terrence Fletcher, no matter his intentions, has caused harm to Andrew and countless other students. Whiplash cautions us to chase our dreams but keep our sanity.

Sydney Weiland

Kutztown '21

Currently, I'm a senior at Kutztown University majoring in English with minors in professional writing, social media theory & strategy, and music and a writing intern with HerCampus. Outside of classes, I love to play my oboe, go thrifting, and cook.
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