Whiplash at 10 Years Old: How it Changed the Way We See Musicians in Movies


10 years ago, Whiplash surprised everyone who saw it. The film was about a drummer named Andrew (Miles Teller) who will do anything to be a great musician, and the teacher who can get him there, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), even if his methods include being sexist, homophobic, violence, and psychological manipulation. The move was not only the announcement of a great new director in Damien Chazelle and proof that Miles Teller was an actor to watch for, but also a new representation of musicians on screen, dramatizing the process of becoming one.


Release Date
October 10, 2014


There have been many movies about musicians before, both real and fictitious, but none as unique as this one. Why? Because it shows how difficult it really is to be a great musician, proving that talent will only take you that far. Here are the reasons why Whiplash changed the way we see musicians in movies today.

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Musicians in Films Until Then

Most stories about musicians in films before Whiplash were about real-life rock stars, and as such, those characters had the fortune of having so much talent that they were much better than anyone around them. Be it Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, or Jim Morrison, their stories in film are much more about their successes and failures after their first hits, drugs, and personal problems, not focusing on how difficult it is to play an instrument, or create a song. So much so, that there’s a perfect parody film about it: Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, that also doesn’t spend a minute showing the craft behind being a musician.

In the movies, when those incredible artists were recording music, the big hits that audiences knew them from were composed in seconds, and the rest of the band would improvise the perfect arrangements for them. It makes sense to streamline the story for a film, but other than Amadeus, the movies never really show them practicing and learning their instruments better to try all those ideas and songs in their heads.

Big personalities with a gift that they shared with the world. No hard work, no thousands of hours practicing, no repetition, no obsession, and no hard times looking for inspiration and creating bad songs for all that effort. Only big hits and success (at least at first). That’s how audiences always saw musicians before Whiplash.

Musicians in Whiplash

In Whiplash, Andrew spends countless hours practicing the same song over and over again, losing sweat, blood, and tears in the process. In real life, being a musician is not only about talent but also about discipline, drive, effort, and being stubborn and almost obsessive about it, as you must keep practicing.

That was never shown in films before, as their talent was the only thing that mattered. If you’ve seen The Beatles: Get Back miniseries, there’s a moment where Paul McCartney does just that, and, in 90 seconds, creates the riff for Get Back. In the miniseries, though, there’s also a lot of time spent with the Fab Four trying different versions of their songs until they find what really works.

Whiplash might be a bit dark on how to get there, as Andrew would do anything to become a great musician, even breaking up with his girlfriend and spending all his waking hours playing the drums, as if it is an addiction. It doesn’t help that Fletcher is an abusive teacher who believes tough love is the only way to extract the most from his musicians, Andrew included. J.K. Simmons has one of his best performances ever as this cruel man who will do and say anything to keep his band in tune (literally and metaphorically), consequences be damned.

Related: 20 Movies About Music That Aren’t Biopics or Musicals

Damien Chazelle Was a Drummer

Director Damien Chazelle was a drummer before becoming a director, and it shows. Not only because Andrew plays the drums, but in his perfect love story, La La Land, Ryan Gosling’s character is also a drummer, and wants to own a jazz club. In the TV show The Eddy, produced by Chazelle, the lead character has a jazz club, so it’s obvious the director loves jazz and the places where it’s played. That’s probably why he wanted to center a film around a drummer and how hard one has to practice to be a jazz drummer, as he had experienced it in the past.

The fact that he was a drummer might also explain why his films have such great editing and a sense of rhythm. Tom Cross was the editor who helped him do it in this movie, and won an Academy Award for his work, and so did the sound mixing team (Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins, Thomas Curley). The mix of music, instruments close-ups, and performances made for a visually stunning film and a story where audiences never knew what was going to happen next, something that’s become harder over the years as audiences have become more savvy about a film’s structure.

The director is also very interested in how difficult it is to become great at playing any instrument, especially drums. So much so, that he shows the character being obsessive, breaking up with his girlfriend (a pre-Super Woman, Melissa Benoist), not talking to his father (Paul Reiser), and making Andrew a bit of a jerk. Especially in the scene with his cousins, in what might be the most crude scene in the whole film.

Related: Best Miles Teller Movies, Ranked

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons Do Great Work

Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons do great work in the film. Teller might have the most internal role, but he shows all his frustration, desire, and obsession at becoming the best drummer possible with every gesture, movement, and look. The actor already knew how to play the drums, but he had to improve his skills exponentially for the role.

For his part, Simmons had one of the best performances of the 2010s, one that earned him his only Academy Award. His Fletcher is much more flashy and scary than Teller’s character, creating an interesting yin and yang dynamic where he’s the man who’ll torture Andrew to make him fear him and keep working to get better and better. The film makes it pretty clear that this behavior is not the right one, especially in the third half of the movie, as the character gets rattled after an old member of the band kills himself, and he gets fired.

Once he gets a new job, Fletcher wants to teach Andrew a lesson by destroying him on stage when he gives him different songs to play than the rest of the band. The incredible final scene is one of the most intense scenes in movie history, and it works thanks to both Teller and Simmons and their dynamic. Once Andrew comes back to play Caravan and starts showing Fletcher he’s that good at drums, their dynamic changes, and the conductor starts to help him, finding that, finally, Andrew is fulfilling his potential and that he was right in thinking the drummer had it in him, after some sparks he had seen in the past.

The ending is apothetical and cathartic for Andrew and the audience, as they end up as exhausted and high as the character, yet the director feels this is not a win. Chazelle had said in interviews before that he believes the lead character would die in his early 30s from a drug overdose because he’d be a sad, empty shell of a person. Even with that possible future, audiences can’t stop cheering for Andrew as his final performance is still incredible, and they love it much more because they’ve seen the long road, effort, time, and sacrifices the character has made for his passion and obsession, becoming the best drummer in the world. Something that films about musicians are now showing in films much more.

Watch the Whiplash trailer here

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