Recently, I watched, jazz musician and YouTuber, Adam Neely’s video on Whiplash titled “Whiplash (as reviewed by a jazz musician)” which aimed to critically analyze the film from the lens of a jazz musician (obviously). As I watched the half-hour video I noticed a few areas where his analysis may have become a bit confused and because of that, I decided to create this article as a coupling to his piece. This is in some respects is a response to his video. There are moments where I will reference his video, and possibly discredit it, however that is not the complete purpose of this article. Neely is analyzing the film from his perspective and in no way is his interpretation of the de facto definition of the film. He doesn’t attempt to claim that anywhere in the video and you won’t see me try to claim that here either. With that disclaimer out of the way, I will now explain what exactly I will be doing.
I noticed in several interviews director, Damien Chazelle expressed that Whiplash was autobiographical of sorts. Much of the film was inspired by his experiences in his competitive high school band. With this in mind, I decided to interview five real senior high school band students who had seen Whiplash to better understand the relationship between the film and real-life school jazz bands. For the sake of privacy, only their initials will be used to differentiate between them, to negate any redundancy some answers won’t be used, and many responses have been edited in some way for clarity. These are high schoolers were talking about, and clarity is the last thing on their minds.
1. What’s your role in studio band and what instrument do you play?
AA: I play trumpet, wind ensemble.
AS: I play trombone and baritone. I’m a mentor lead.
JB: I play saxophone and I’m lead alto in jazz.
BA: I play kit in the top jazz ensemble.
AM: First chair, top band. Alto sax and soprano sax.
2. Did you enjoy Whiplash?
AA: Yes, sir.
AS: Whiplash was a genuinely enjoyable movie, had some amazing acting.
JB: Yes, I enjoyed Whiplash, the plot was pretty basic but the characters really drew your attention.
BA: Yes, I enjoyed Whiplash very much. I think it’s a great film, everything from the technical finesse Chazelle displayed to the raw emotion Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons were able to convey absolutely floored me the first time I saw it: I had never seen anything like it.
AM: I thought it was a pretty good movie. I enjoyed the overall plot and I thought the casting was very well done. The soundtrack was also really enjoyable.
3. How realistic is Whiplash to real studio band?
AA: Not at all to any school band and I doubt a professional would even be that hardcore.
AS: It’s somewhat realistic. It gets a lot of the general ideas in but a lot of the slang and terminology used by jazz directors was used incorrectly or used way too much. Like when Fletcher kept saying double-time swing. No one ever says that.
JB: Whiplash to real studio band has some real aspects. Mostly the tactics he (Fletcher) used weren’t traditional to the real world. For example, you wouldn’t say 5678 you’d say 1 and 2 and 1-2-3-4 emphasizing beats 2 and 4.
BA: Whiplash definitely bent to the truth more than just a bit. I’ve never encountered a band director like Fletcher, I’ve never been in a jazz band that was run that tightly, and I’ve done my fair share of practice, but I’ve never gone to the extreme lengths, Neiman went through in the film for a chart.
AM: While I’m more of a classical musician than a jazz player, from what I’m able to tell they’re similar in a lot of aspects but slightly dramatized.
4. Would Fletcher’s attitude be accepted in a real classroom?
AS: His behavior would not be acceptable. It’s downright cruel and the methods our director’s use don’t involve ridiculing or screaming at musicians to get things right.
JB: Fletcher’s attitude would not be acceptable in a classroom in this generation at least because it would “hurt” people’s feelings. The tough-love sort of relationship is usually associated with (jazz) back in the ’60s-’90s.
BA: Fletcher’s attitude would definitely not be tolerated in a classroom. Everyone I’ve encountered in my years of playing music is generally really chill and down to earth people. I’ve seen my band director get mad, and we’ve annoyed him plenty of times by playing badly or goofing off, but he’s never gone anywhere near Fletcher’s level of animosity.
AM: By some students, yes, but not by all. It would weed out the truly dedicated from the recreational musician. Although the cussing and the insults would have to be way toned down, the idea of always expecting more improvement and never truly saying “good job” is pretty consistent with a real classroom setting.
5. Has it affected your desire to pursue band? Has it inspired you?
AS: It hasn’t changed my desires to pursue music in any sense, maybe even lowered it because throughout the movie you can see the way the main character’s ambition to be great becomes an obsession where he’s straight-up consumed by his art and shuts everything out to become great and that’s the scary reality of pursuing music as a career because you have to be dummy good to get anywhere.
JB: Watching the movie at first in middle school did inspire me to pursue music because I thought all of the charts were cool, although it scared me as a child, it made me want to push myself.
BA: When I first watched the film (middle school) I was heavily inspired by it, it made me wanna practice more. Over time the film’s novelty has worn off.
6. Do you see yourself in the main character; Andrew?
AA: A bit, cuz I need to be pushed to be successful.
AS: I don’t see myself in him mainly because my “career” in jazz is more of a hobby and with him, it’s his lifestyle.
JB: I do see myself in Miles Teller (Andrew) in that I’ve had similar experiences. Not to the extent of violence and cussing but the yelling, and abuse which lead me to push myself harder in music and become the musician I am today.
BA: No, I don’t see myself in the main character.
AM: I do relate to the aspect of always being hard on yourself and having ambition.
7. Are there any inconsistencies in the film that you noticed initially?
AS: Only real inconsistencies were the jazz terminology and instrumentation stuff but that’s mainly just nitpicking.
BA: A big marketing point of the film was Miles Teller having to take drum lessons for the film; while it definitely shows how smooth and organic everything looks, there are a couple moments where his playing isn’t anywhere near what’s happening in the soundtrack.
AM: Fletcher’s motives weren’t justified enough. While it was wrong to take his tactics to such extreme lengths, his motivation was only to forge the best musicians possible. That’s what any band director would want.
8. Do you like the way they portrayed jazz?
AA: Yeah, because the reason for all that craziness and emotion in the movie is (due to a) genuine passion for music.
AS: Overall the way jazz was portrayed wasn’t really supposed to be a “This is what jazz is!” type thing. It was a huge dramatization of the harsh realities of when art becomes an obsession and extreme lengths artists go in order to be one of the greats…. (however) some directors in jazz band can be like dictators when trying to (get someone to) be great.
JB: Yes, I like the way they portrayed Jazz, not so much, the unrealistic practice methods but the music like “Caravan” and “Whiplash” pertain to what you see most big bands play today.
BA: Portraying the world of Jazz as super cutthroat maybe wasn’t the best choice, but it worked for the film. I also appreciated the emphasis they put on how much you really need to practice to be “one of the greats” but again it took it to the extreme. It also disregarded some people that are just naturally talented at jazz and become great through sheer skill as opposed to chops.
AM: In general, yes. There’s passion ambition, creativity, improvisation, and grit. That’s what I love about jazz most, and I see it in sections of the movie.
I believe it’s clear that Whiplash was made by Chazelle due to his honest passion for music. Many of his original works have to do with music and two of them have a huge emphasis on jazz. I spoke to all interviewees personally and most of them told me they watched Whiplash at a very young and impressionable age. Is it correct to say that this film changed their opinion of jazz? Perhaps. Is it fair to say that this would ruin or manipulate someone’s opinion of jazz? I don’t believe so.
I believe many are aware of the tactics the industry must use in order to make a medium more interesting however, that’s not to say that jazz doesn’t at least sometimes feel like it looks in Whiplash. Everyone has an individual experience with music and depending on who you are, it may shape your life forever. I don’t think Neely should be worrying about how a movie about jazz makes someone feel. Instead, he should focus on how jazz actually makes them feel.
At the end of the day, perhaps we all must understand that it’s about the art itself, not what other people are saying about it.