Whiplash – A Bloody Awful Film About Drumming

Sigourney WeaverSo I hate-watched Whiplash, the movie that’s got folks salivating with anticipation due to some glowing reviews and enthusiastic press reports. I say hate-watched because I knew I’d hate the movie due to a bunch of stuff some sensible people wrote about it, like George Colligan did on his Jazz Truth Blog and from the trailer.

Why watch it if I knew I’d hate it? Because being a drummer and drum teacher means everyone I talk to assumes I’m interested and I felt I should be in a position to dampen their enthusiasm with some authority. My dad said I’m a miserable git but I take my occupation seriously and don’t enjoy the media taking the piss.

I am now officially qualified to tell you, Whiplash (should have been called Full Metal Drum Kit) is a bloody awful movie. As a representation of drumming it’s bloody awful and as a representation of music education it’s really bloody awful. Here we have the story of a very insecure drummer, Andrew, who, for reasons unknown, has an almost serial-killer like fixation on Buddy Rich. He is being abused by his teacher Fletcher, a bargain-bucket R Lee Ermey impersonator who thinks that the way to cultivate great musicianship is to bully his students into playing cheesy 70’s style big band music.

Andrew is someone who’s mother abandoned him and who’s father is obviously an insensitive dolt who never gave him the warmth and encouragement every child needs leaving him with a horrendous inferiority complex. He manages to get in to the top conservatory in the US and for some reason is picked to play in the top band in the school. He and his bandmates are forced to submit themselves to the relentless abuse and humiliation meted out by the sadistic Fletcher, a barely mediocre bar-room pianist with a deluded sense of his own importance (the people in the school’s HR department must need their heads looking at).

Andrew accepts the abuse hurled at him by Fletcher who takes on the symbolic role of the father who he can never do enough to please and whose approval he desperately needs in order to feel worthy of his place on Earth. These two pathetic individuals play out their melodrama climaxing in a scene in which the son stands up to the father’s abuse and finally he gets the hint of a smile and a likely fleeting moment of grudging respect.

The scenes showing Andrew drumming or practicing are gut-wrenching. Apparently drummers are meant to do their art by tensing every muscle in their bodies and flailing about until their hands bleed. The music is insipid throughout. It all sounded like something that would be on the Dirty Harry soundtrack and who would want to play like Buddy Rich anyway, let alone listen to that cheesy stuff?

Inadequate sadist Fletcher attempts to justify himself by saying that if people aren’t arseholes to each other, no one would be motivated to be really great at anything. I think that those really great people are driven by something within and don’t depend on external stimulus. The idea that Charlie Parker might have not felt driven to develop his playing had he not been laughed off the stage when he was 16 is ridiculous.

Whiplash is a truly horrific film. The message it gives about learning music, the creative process and how to excel is extremely ugly. I can’t help but wonder what kind of society wants people to think that the depressing interaction between the film’s main characters represents the road to excellence and high achievement. Anyone who knows anything about music will probably find it to be, at best, an uncomfortable experience. I’m glad I saw it just so I can go on a rant about how awful it is.

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  1. Posted March 19, 2015 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    yeah the trailer was enough for me; glad you wrote this coz now i can feel happy about not seeing it

  2. Posted April 30, 2015 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

    Whiplash was a good movie for what it was. Simmons won the Academy Award for his part which he played perfectly. The movie got very good reviews so I doubt that your critique bothered them much.

    As for “who would want to play like Buddy Rich”. The answer is that most drummers would sell their soul to have his technique. The drummers that say they wouldn’t play that style, say it because they can’t get anywhere near what he could do.

  3. Posted April 30, 2015 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your comment. Personally, I’d rather a spoonful of what Art Blakey had than a bucketful of what Buddy had.

  4. Posted June 12, 2015 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    Hello Joe,

    My name is Oliver, I´m a spanish drummer from Madrid. I just read your blog about the film whiplash.

    I agree with most of the things you say. I´m sending you this message because mabe you have an answer for a doubt I have since I saw the film. There is one exercise showed in the film where the young drummer increases speed and mantaining máx possible speed and finally hurting his hands (apparently playing single notes with hands and feets all at the same time).

    In my case, in any kind of exercise, I try to make it the more relaxed I can, trying to avoid tension. As I know, playng relaxed is the only way to reach accuracy, endurance and speed. My cuestion is (regardless of this tension/relax matter) if you know if this exersice is a real basic rudiment exercise or if its just something silly/fake.

    I dont have much time to practice but I can tell you that, since 5-6 years, I´m practising the same basic rudiments (basically single and double stroke rolls, paradiddles combined with different foot exercises.. I know the 40 basic rudiments ….I think that with this I have enough rudiments to practice all my life!!). I just wanted to know if I missed this exercise I ask you for.. mabe it could be interesting for increasing muscle strength.

    Thanks for your time and sorry for my english….as with my drumming ….I try to do my best 🙂


  5. Posted June 12, 2015 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Hi Oliver, thanks for your comment. I can’t see any reason why playing with maximum tension until your hands bleed would possibly be beneficial to anyone. I don’t think you missed anything there. It looks like a stupid thing they came up with for the movie.

    I would say the 40 official rudiments are more than enough for a lifetime for most drummers.

  6. Josie
    Posted February 10, 2016 at 12:39 am | Permalink

    Thanks for slagging off this film. I just watched it and I feel soiled, like when you eat a really bad meal that isn’t nutritious and doesn’t taste good either.

    I think that what I found so awful about it is exactly that – it was neither good tasting nor nutritious. It constantly hinted that it was about to become one or the other, that it would either become a tasty emotionally satisfying story around revenge or something, or that it would have something serious and interesting to say about human psychology. But it did neither. It was just yuk.

  7. dafuq
    Posted September 26, 2016 at 7:51 pm | Permalink

    Whiplash is about a kid who just can’t seem to be on time. Ever. No matter how important the thing he has to be on time is.

  8. radar
    Posted September 28, 2016 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    i didnt like the movie either and thought it was dumb but Buddy rich is a fucking drum master

  9. N. Castro
    Posted October 3, 2016 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    I think everything you say about this movie is true except it is awful. It’s probably one of the best achieved pieces of art on the film industry. The movie has nothing to do with education, let alone music.

  10. Posted October 3, 2016 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    If I ignore the music, I still think it’s awful 🙂

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