Her Campus Logo Her Campus Logo
The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Pitt chapter.

How far will you go to be the greatest? How much are you willing to risk in the pursuit of perfection? What would Gordon Ramsey be like if he were a music teacher? All these questions are answered in the 2014 film Whiplash. Originally a short film, Whiplash was released as an indie movie in 2014. After its success, the director went on to film a full-length motion picture. Since its release, it has become a classic for young jazz musicians. I wasn’t interested in this movie at all until my boyfriend had me watch it. I didn’t think I would like it at all; why would I care about some random jazz musician? Yet, I watched the movie anyway and oh my gosh: it was amazing. You don’t even have to like music to get so deeply invested in Whiplash. It’s more about the human spirit than it is drumming. The movie features a young musician who is given the opportunity to be great. Whiplash begs the question: how far will you go to be the best?

This film features a flawed, but likable, protagonist. Andrew Neiman is a nineteen-year-old college student trying to become the greatest jazz drummer of all time. This sounds like a healthy goal, but the way he expresses it shows an unhealthy obsession. He comes off as a kid with a dream in the beginning, but slowly we see his descent into madness. His willingness to put himself through hell is evident throughout the entire film. Despite this, the viewer cannot help but root for him. The stakes are set impossibly high for Andrew Neiman. He wants to be “one of the greats,” but the only way he can achieve this is by getting verbally and physically assaulted. This may be an exaggeration of your average jazz band, but it is all too similar to the internal struggle of any young musician.

As the film progresses, we see our beloved protagonist take steps toward the “dark side.” At the beginning of the film, Andrew is wide-eyed, determined and kind. An early scene shows him talking to his dad in a movie theatre about his experience with Fletcher. His father congratulates him, while Andrew tells him not to get his hopes up because the interaction may be insignificant. This makes him more likable and builds him up as a kindhearted and passive kid. Later, however, we can see that Andrew loses respect for his father, showing how far his obsession has gone. His father is meant to be a foil to Andrew, staying the same kindhearted person throughout so we can see how addicted his son becomes.

If you rolled Abby Lee Miller, Gordon Ramsey, and my fifth-grade band teacher who, oh my god I hate him so much, into one person, you wouldn’t even get close to the evil that is Terence Fletcher. He is a middle-aged jazz band director who demands absolute perfection from his students. The only comic relief you can get from this character is his forehead wrinkles. I wish that were a joke, but every time I watch, I wonder if his skull has shrunk and now, he has too much skin. I digress, but even though he doesn’t physically assault his victims (for the most part), he is a textbook villain. He belittles the main character by insulting his family and striking him multiple times. Terrance Fletcher’s assault often comes in the verbal form, yelling and screaming at his students for even the most minuscule mistakes. He kicks a person out of his band on Neman’s first day, building up suspense on what will happen to our beloved protagonist.

I think the ratio of verbal to physical violence is what makes Whiplash so thrilling. Seeing the main character sit still while he gets screamed at, insulted, and slapped gives a sort of “trapped in your own body” type of horror. It’s like a sort of paralysis; if Neiman talks back, he will immediately get thrown out of the band, and this would mean he failed at his goal. His only option is to sit still while the torrential downpour whips him every which way.

One of the things you will notice while watching the film is your heart rate. Have you ever been up close at a concert and heard the drums pound your eardrums? A similar thing happens while watching Whiplash. The drumming of the main character almost mocks the viewer’s increasing heartbeat. There are multiple points in the film where Neiman drums as fast as he can, and as he is doing so, the viewer gets more and more nervous for him. Even if you don’t turn your volume all the way up, the sound will become deafening. The viewer watches in anticipation as the protagonist drums faster and faster as his mentor eggs him on, daring him to fail. He goes faster, and you start biting your nails, hoping his abilities are adequate for Fletcher. This scene-concept happens multiple times in the movie, and for a good reason. It’s so anxiety-inducing and is always accompanied by a breathtaking visual.

That is another thing about the movie: the imagery is wild. Everything about the scenery is so simple. The main settings are barren, the clothing is basic, and even the look of the actors is relatively plain. What makes the look so unique is the way everything is put together. The very first scene in the film features Andrew Neiman drumming in a completely barren room. There is an obvious spotlight on him, but the rest of the room is dark. The only two characters in that scene are Neiman and Fletcher. The close-ups of both create an uncomfortable intimacy between the protagonist and the soon-to-be antagonist. There is nothing in the background to divert your attention away from the interaction. My favorite shot of the movie is when Neiman shoves his bloody fist into a bucket of ice water. The deep red contrasts with the pale blue background and visually represents him losing his sanity.

Another thing I love about Whiplash is the ambiguity and vagueness of it all. No one ever says, “If Fletcher likes you, you have a better chance at becoming famous” or “If you get kicked out, you have not shot at being a serious jazz musician.” We can assume our protagonist chose a prestigious music school and would seek validation from only the greatest professors, but nothing is ever clarified. It doesn’t need to be clarified. If it is important to the protagonist, it is important to the viewer. To Andrew Neiman, being part of Fletcher’s band (for most of the movie) is the only way he can become “one of the greats.” The ambiguity of the situation makes the viewer wonder: is this important, or is he just blowing out of proportion? If he leaves the band, he can still be a great drummer, right? These questions are never officially answered, making it so much fun to talk about.

One of my favorite topics surrounding this film is the idea of narrator reliability. If you skipped out on your tenth grade English class’s To Kill a Mockingbird unit, narrator reliability analyzes how biased, accurate, and complete the version of the story is when told through the narrator’s perspective. From Neiman’s perspective, running out of a car crash injured and continuing to play in a concert is a heroic testament to his dedication. However, the viewer is concerned. An eighteen-wheeler truck crashed into him and cut his face, and instead of waiting for the paramedics to arrive so they could treat him, he ran the distance to the concert hall. Here, we see that Andrew is becoming addicted to his craft.

The ending of the movie is widely discussed. The director of the film even said he was shocked at the public’s reaction. He expected the audiences to be mildly horrified, instead of proud and prideful. For Andrew Neiman, the ending is triumphant. He finally showed Fletcher that he was an exceptional drummer while getting to show his talent to the world. However, the look on Neiman’s father’s face tells a different story. He looks worried and almost scared. Why? If we look at the final scene through the eyes of Mr. Neiman, we can see how painful it is. Earlier in the movie, Andrew said that he would rather be dead from a drug overdose at thirty as a famous musician than live until ninety and have people not talk about him. As a parent, he wants to support his child’s dreams, but at what cost? Andrew is ready to throw his mental and physical health in the garbage to become one of the greatest jazz drummers in history. This is the moment Andrew’s father realized that his son had become addicted to a different type of drug.

All in all, Whiplash is just a great film. Touching on themes like obsession, family and legacy, it induces the viewer to feel all the pain of its main character. Whiplash is one of those movies that you think about for hours after you finish it. What happened to Andrew Neiman when the movie ended? Did he immediately become one of the greats? Was his talent only recognized after his death? Or were his attempts futile? Did he live the rest of his life trying to be recognized, only for his talent to be wasted? Since its release in 2014, Whiplash has remained all too real for young musicians. How far are they willing to go to be the greatest?

Kat is a first-year student at the University of Pittsburgh. This is her first year writing for Her Campus, and she is primarily interested in writing about psychology, history, relationships, music, movies, and her own experiences as a freshman in college. She is majoring in secondary education with a focus in English. Her goal for the year is to be a published author on at least three different platforms.