I’m late to the game on this, but I finally saw Whiplash. And although it held my interest, and I did enjoy the music, I found the film irredeemably problematic. It would be easy enough to criticize the story. Although the characters are apparently very skilled as musicians, as people they can only play the same two notes (“driven” and “asshole”). The romantic subplot is not so much understated as unstated. But it’s perhaps more interesting (and more important) to consider everything the film got wrong about music, or more specifically jazz, or even more specifically, studying jazz at a major music school, which is something I can speak to. Here’s a list of five problems:
1 Most disturbing is this idea of jazz as a highly institutionalized form, with white people like Terrence Fletcher as the gate keepers. In Whiplash, jazz is like French cuisine—it’s prepared in oak-paneled rooms with track lighting, performed wearing tuxedos in grand halls where panels of judges make or break your career. The pinnacle of jazz is not found in some shitty club, but rather at Lincoln Center. Certainly, some of this sort of thing exists, but the film completely ignores the history of jazz as being an African American art form that was created on the streets of New Orleans and New York City. Jazz exists because people like Miles Davis dropped out of Juilliard to hang out in Harlem. The film is suggesting that a type of aristocracy has now completely taken over this form, and will decide who succeeds and who fails (and if they decide you’ll fail, you have no other recourse, you’re finished). Whiplash stresses this point quite strongly—that achieving “greatness” means being acknowledged by the elite power structure. If the film indeed means to suggest such a world exists (if not in real life, at least on screen), it would be a tragedy worth exploring, but these circumstances are never for a moment questioned.