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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Vichinsky

Whiplash: A Review and Analysis

Updated: Jun 21, 2023


What does it mean to be great? How do you teach and foster greatness? Is it possible? Is trying ever enough on the path the greatness?

At the center of this film, these are the questions that a viewer is asked to consider when viewing the 2014 film Whiplash (yes, I know I'm late).

The film is about a young jazz musician, Andrew Nieman (Miles Teller), who is accepted into a very competitive music school. Nieman dreams of not just becoming a great musician - but the best. These values are amplified when he runs into Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) the conductor of the school's studio band. Fletcher uses his unorthodox, humiliating ways, to push his musicians to be the best.

This story is really put together by the theme of greatness. We are used to the cliches put out in sports movies - Rocky, Facing the Giants, I, Tonya - but the fresh use of the "cut-throat" music industry allows viewers to see this in a new light. In music, the movie shows, there's not tiers (like divisions in college football) you can't just "kind of make it" you either do, or you don't. With this mindset there are a million different ways to not make it as highlighted by Fletcher's ability to point these small parts out. To make it, Nieman can't just be satisfied with the good he has to obsess about the bad.

One thing that symbolizes this well is the dark imagery contradicted by the spotlight. In numerous scenes Nieman is in the dark, the sole light shining on his face at work. This is exemplified by the banner in this post. Film makers chose to make the backdrop dark and the forefront enlightened. This accomplishes a few ideas, but the most fascinating is how the film makers create a feeling of isolation in these scenes. Surrounded by the band, many times, excellence is done in isolation. There is no hiding average, if Nieman is average it is seen, if he is excellent it is seen. No one can save him. The spotlight, which is usually used to identify excellence is used as a magnify glass to the isolation that greatness creates. It is also shown to be a weight to carry - or a burden in this way.

In the isolation of greatness is where the character of Fletcher comes in. It is a hard thing to watch and listen to at times. Fletcher is brutal with the musicians - hitting them, cussing at them, and insulting their every insecurity. In fact, in the moments where he seems vulnerable and soft it is usually revealed he just does it to gain information for him to use against the musicians - specifically seen in the drummers. In this way, Fletcher really represents the fear of failure. The directors embody failure in the character. Fletcher is the voices everyone hears on the pursuit of greatness. Every doubt echoes, every insult someone could use against you, and every small detail you hope no one sees, he articulates and aggressively uses. In this way Nieman - who probably doesn't see this - sees his doubts as something to prove himself against instead of something that he can hide behind.

Fletcher puts this best at the end when he says "good job" is the worst phrase we ever came up with. It reeks of contentment and that any "great" would not cower from the opportunity to get better, or practice harder - this is paraphrased, of course.

The truth is, Andrew, I... never really had a Charlie Parker. But I tried. I actually fucking tried. And that's more than most people ever do. And I will never apologize for how I tried.

This is the beauty in this movie. In the face of PG culture, where it seems like everyone has to matter, or be good at something, this movie says - prove it. The film states not everyone has the chance to be great and that it's not enough to be just great at something. If you're going to strive for the best, you have to be willing to face the failures, insecurities, and contentment that the average screams from the stands.

Not everyone can do this of course, not even Nieman (Nie being the english root for "No" hence the name "No-man") or Fletcher for that matter (as he admits in the quote he has never created a great). This can be taken a couple of ways, depending on how you see the movie. No man can obtain greatness, it is a consistent pursuit would be one way, and the way I choose to see it. To echo Fletcher, the true test is to continue to try, and in every trial the pursuit of greatness has to be there. In the end, what we have to live with is our own failure and nightmares at being "almost" great.

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