In elementary school, I came across a shocking video of child Chinese gymnasts training in a white-walled sanitorium of a gym, lifting their legs so their shins tapped their foreheads as their coaches yelled at them. They held onto a metal bar for dear life, lined up in a row dressed in pink bodysuits. Their faces were scrunched red with tears, but they kept heaving their legs up and down and up and down.

I was fascinated by it because I myself was whisked off to a strict ballet teacher during my childhood and endured a similar kind of repetitive pain, although certainly not as strenuous. My teacher pressed down on our legs so our splits would be straighter, made us kick our legs high to the side, to the front, to the back until they shook. All in the name of perfection, I thought. The beauty of expression and emotion through dance never crossed my mind.

All this resurfaced when I watched 2014’s WHIPLASH. In it, Andrew, a music student and jazz drummer, strives to become one of the “greats” under the tutelage of an abusive teacher named Fletcher. Played by JK Simmons with a simmering, volatile rage, Fletcher screams homophobic and misogynistic insults and treats his students with as little mercy as a Siberian winter. Writer and director Damien Chazelle based the story on his own experiences training as a jazz drummer under a conductor who “scared the hell out of [him].” It’s a story of pain and passion that rings all too true for anyone who has ever sought to be the best.

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Pain

Fletcher uses a variety of abusive techniques to push his students. (“Push” is really an understatement, akin to calling Steve Jobs “above average.”) He bullies Andrew into crying, insults his family to provoke him, and forces the three drummers to take turns playing a part until one of them plays it correctly, but not before their bodies are coated with sweat and Andrew’s fingers start bleeding over the drum set. He does this, he says, so he can find the next Charlie Parker, a drummer whose legendary status traces back to the moment when Jo Jones hurled a cymbal at him. This story is mentioned several times throughout the film.

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Last Friday, a Colorado cheerleading coach was fired after a video of him forcing a cheerleader into a split surfaced. In it, a thirteen-year-old girl, face contorted in agony, is being held down by her teammates, and she screams for them to stop. Like in WHIPLASH, the teacher faces legal charges of abuse. But in the film, none of the students whipped out their phone and recorded Fletcher screaming obscenities at his students or slapping Andrew in the face. They acted more liked the teammates who held the girl down: going along with it because they had faith in the authority’s methods. Even Andrew is reluctant to testify against Fletcher after all he did to him.

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Isolation

To be fair, Andrew is no virtuous “good guy,” either. Chazelle paints a bleak, egotistical version of the world in WHIPLASH, where the protagonist consumes himself with one self-centered goal: to be one of the “greats.” Aggression, cruelty, and rudeness are requirements to get ahead.

Andrew and his competitor Carl (Fletcher’s original core drummer whom Andrew replaces) are vicious to each other. At the dinner table, Andrew insults the boys to imply that his accomplishments are superior. He avoids socializing — the film shows his isolation by blurring out the faces around him or cutting their heads from the frame — because that would distract him from his practicing. And Andrew’s smashing and banging and clanging his drum set evokes the frenzied and frantic nature of his desires. The drums themselves seem to represent Andrew: isolated from the brass section and unable to express warm emotions, just varying levels of intense feeling.

Pushing Others Away

According to WHIPLASH, the road to greatness becomes cluttered if you let others into your life. There’s no room for unnecessary relationships — Andrew tells his father that he’d rather die “drunk, broke at 34 and have people at the dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remember who I was.” He sees the people who actually care about him as obstacles to his success. He breaks up with his girlfriend by telling her she’s standing in his way. He spends time with his father, but their relationship doesn’t get much deeper than the popcorn bucket they share at the movie theater.

His father is never quite caught up on Andrew’s musical progress, and he doesn’t understand his passion for drums or, once he finds out about it, his reluctance to fight Fletcher’s brutality. To Andrew, his father, a failed novelist turned high school English teacher, represents exactly what he doesn’t want to be: mediocre, average, and obscure.

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In the movie theater, his father says to Andrew that he has “other options” besides drumming and that at his age “you get perspective.” Andrew replies, “I don’t want perspective.” Then a man walks by and accidentally hits a popcorn bag against his father’s head. It’s a small action that seems to ridicule his father’s advice. After the lights dim, Andrew says that he doesn’t want to eat the Raisinets in the popcorn that his father likes, showing the disconnect in their relationship and their aspirations.

At the end of WHIPLASH, Andrew walks away from his father’s embrace and turns to the stage, showing his choice of a risky future over his father’s safer, unremarkable life.

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WHIPLASH in Real Life

Andrew’s stark competitiveness and distance from everyone around him is founded in some truth. An article for Boston Magazine, “Mike Tetreault’s BSO Audition,” published in 2012 details a percussionist’s grueling path to getting just a chance of joining the Boston Symphony Orchestra. After practicing from 6 PM to 3 AM for a week, he finally recorded the necessary tapes and received an invitation to audition. Since openings in major symphonies are rare, the 10 minutes of the audition would make or break his career.

Author Jennie Doris writes,

During one 10-day stretch, he practiced 20 hours a day. Because he and his wife, Rachel, didn’t want to waste the precious few minutes they got to see each other during the week, they arranged regular meetings to deal with everyday concerns like finances and schedules. Anything less than perfection — one too-hard strike of the mallet — and it will have all been for naught.

He didn’t make it past the first round.

Approval

Near the beginning of WHIPLASH, Fletcher accepts Andrew into his jazz band, the best in the country. After enduring a rather boring, unchallenging band class and toiling away at night to transcend it, Andrew is elated, even radiant, after the promotion. The camera tilts slightly upward at him, suggesting feelings of dominance and control. With this newly gained confidence, he asks out the cute girl at the movie theater’s popcorn stand, Nicole.

Finally, it’s time for his first rehearsal with Fletcher. It goes well. During a break, Fletcher warmly tells Andrew that he is “here for a reason.” That is until Andrew plays “Whiplash” with the wrong tempo. At this Fletcher makes a 180-degree turn and, in a fit of rage, throws a chair at Andrew. The rest of the film, awash with yellow and blue tones, is devoid of joy, of cheer, of happiness. Until the end of WHIPLASH, Andrew chases the high of Fletcher’s earlier approval like chasing a dangled carrot, practicing with hands soaked in blood, making finger motions on the bus to rehearse, running out of a wrecked car in order to make a concert on time.

Andrew is driven by other motivations, too — to get a spot at Lincoln Center, to prove himself to his dad and others, and of course, to be “great.” This is not art for art’s sake. The purpose of Andrew’s playing is to advance himself, and the piece he plays is only the means for others to decide whether they help him achieve that goal or not.

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Creation of Art

So what is art if it’s stripped down to hours of repetitive motion, arriving on stage at 5:30, and bloody sticks bouncing off the cymbals at precisely quarter note equals 215? Miraculously, it becomes art. Andrew’s nearly 10-minute-long final cacophony of a performance is a triumph because we understand what it took for him to get there. As Andrew stated earlier in the film, music isn’t subjective. When we hear the roaring, heart-pumping finale, we know that it is great.

In an article about how WHIPLASH was based on his life, Damien Chazelle writes,

I guess art itself is insane. Its actual function is rarely clear, and yet people give their hearts and souls and lives to it, and have for all of history. Maybe it’s that burning desire to leave something behind, to be remembered. At one point in the movie, the lead character, aspiring drummer Andrew Neyman, declares that he’d give up everything if it meant he could be talked about at a dinner table, by people he’s never met, at some point in the future. We shudder and maybe laugh, because the kid is totally nuts. But I think there’s a part of every artist that can relate.

Was It Worth It?

WHIPLASH raises questions about how far people will go to achieve greatness. In the end, after all his work and suffering, Andrew gains the tacit approval of Fletcher. He has found his next Charlie Parker. There’s no doubt that the audience, including music scouts and his father, was blown away as well. But is it worth the pain and exhausting hours? Forgoing relationships? The high chance of failure? There’s no right answer. For Andrew, it was. For Tetreault, it was. As for me, I quit ballet a long time ago.

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