Essays · Movies

‘Whiplash’ is an Exhilarating Oscar-Worthy Drum Solo

With his 2014 Best Picture nominee, Damien Chazelle takes a film about music to the next level.
Debate Week Best Picture Losers Whiplash
By  · Published on April 24th, 2021

Welcome to Debate Week: Best Picture Losers, a series in which we’ll be looking at some of the best movies that were nominated, but ultimately lost the Oscar race for Best Picture. In this entry, Aurora Amidon discusses Damien Chazelle’s five-time nominated 2014 film, Whiplash.

One of the most important elements of a film is its rhythm. For something like Spider-Man or The Avengers, a fast-paced and exciting rhythm is essential in conveying the high-stakes nature of the superhero world. Alternatively, for a work by a meditative director like Andrei Tarkovsky or Béla Tarr, a lethargic rhythm is just as important to the story as the story itself. And in a film about music, rhythm is the component that ultimately tethers the worlds of music and cinema.

From the vast portfolio of films about musicians, Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014) stands out as the one that most successfully uses editing to represent the music world. It tells the story of Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), an ambitious young jazz drummer at one of the world’s top music conservatories. His passion and sanity are tested when the notoriously ruthless instructor Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) takes an interest in him and pushes him to the edge of his comfort zone and far, far beyond. 

Pace and editing are vital to the very essence of Whiplash. They help convey the competitive and unpredictable nature of the music business, the destructiveness of passion, and the tension in the film’s core relationships. Admittedly, using nimble and tumultuous editing to highlight these themes isn’t exactly something that Chazelle invented, but the way he employs it is novel and innovative. Indeed, before anything else, Whiplash is the equivalent of a drum solo, like the one Andrew plays at the beginning of the film to get himself recruited by Terrence, as well as the one he plays at the end of the film to prove to his audience he is, in fact, one of the Greats with a capital G.

In the world of drumming, there exists a duality. On the average radio hit, a drummer is usually tasked with keeping a rhythm. Normally, a drummer is reliable, no matter what else is going on in the song. Whiplash lets us know, however, that jazz drumming is an entirely different universe. The very nature of a jazz drum solo is entirely unpredictable, and Chazelle mirrors this fact consistently throughout his film.

Ultimately, like the beats of a jazz drum solo, no one in Whiplash does what we expect them to do. When we meet Terrence, for example, it is under the context that he is an elusive, notoriously cold-blooded and callous figure. So when he takes Andrew aside after inviting him to play in his elite band and tells him to simply “do his best,” he is already defying our expectations — and the film has hardly been on for fifteen minutes. And then, when he turns out to be exactly who he was rumored to be, our expectations are flipped on their heads once again.

Terrence isn’t the only part of Whiplash that is unpredictable. To successfully recreate a drum solo, Chazelle sets up multiple aspects of Andrew’s life that we anticipate will play out a certain way. Then, he crushes those expectations. Take, for instance, Andrew’s relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist). The two have a classic “meet-cute,” a trope that generally doesn’t appear in a film unless the director wants us to actually root for the relationship. But halfway through Whiplash, Andrew cuts things off with Nicole seemingly out of the blue because of her perceived lack of motivation. We expect them to get back together, hoping that this is just another aspect of the “meet-cute.” But they don’t. 

Andrew’s home life follows a similar trajectory as his relationship with Nicole. From the opening scene of Whiplash, it is clear that Andrew and his father (Paul Reiser) have a very close relationship. While we might assume the character will be a constant throughout the film, Andrew’s father takes a surprising turn on his son when he makes an unforeseen spiteful comment about how the young man will never play at Carnegie Hall. Throughout the film, Chazelle consistently reminds us that, try as we might, we cannot predict what will happen. Just when we think we are getting a hang of its rhythm, like a jazz drum solo it surprises us by changing course entirely.

This pattern is also conveyed in the whiplash-inducing back-and-forth nature of the narrative itself. Unsurprisingly, Andrew and Terrence’s relationship is the most turbulent of the film. In the first scene, Terrence stumbles upon Andrew in a practice room and seems to like his playing. Then, he leaves the room abruptly, seemingly disappointed. But then he invites Andrew to practice with the band — only to replace him with another drummer. After that, Terrence gives Andrew one more shot at the head-drum seat but then kicks him out of the band entirely. Later, Terrence invites Andrew to play with a band that isn’t associated with the school, but he ends up double-crossing him and making him play something he doesn’t know. But then  — yes, there’s more — Andrew improvises an incredible drum solo and Terrence is sufficiently impressed. For now. 

The relationship between Andrew and Terrence is more than just an on-and-off tempestuous affair. It also helps make the distinction between Andrew as a backup drummer and Andrew as a jazz drummer.

Throughout Whiplash, Andrew makes his comebacks with increasing force. The film, which begins with Andrew playing slow but tantalizing beats of a drum, ends with him playing a victorious final beat. Even though he falters at times, Andrew controls the film’s rhythm every step of the way. After all, that fluctuation is just part of the idiosyncrasy of a jazz drum solo.

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Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.