What a Jazz Drumming Movie Has to Say About Violence in The NFL

By  · Published on October 16th, 2014

Sony Pictures Classics

Who would have thought the most brutal film of the year would be about jazz?

Andrew (Miles Teller), the protagonist of Whiplash, is a first-year jazz drumming prodigy who possesses the talent to be one of the greats but not the work ethic. When he finally meets someone who can train him to be the best, it is both a blessing and a curse. He makes it into the elite “studio” band led by Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a legendary teacher and conductor, and Andrew’s confidence at having made the group is immediately and brutally ripped apart. Fletcher abuses him in every way imaginable: he slaps him repeatedly, screams ethnic slurs, and even throws a cymbal at his head.

Why are such stringent teaching methods necessary? It’s all part of Fletcher’s teaching philosophy: “The two most destructive words in the English language,” he tells Andrew late in the film, “are ‘good job’.”

Still, Fletcher’s abuse is nothing compared to what Andrew does to himself: practicing until his hands bleed, pushing his muscles to the brink of collapse, and running away from a violent car crash in order to be on time for an important band competition. This is not a simple case of a teacher abusing his student; Andrew wants to be great just as badly as Fletcher wants him to be, and both of them have bought into a system of physical punishment to achieve that goal.

Does any of this sound familiar? Many films have utilized the dynamic of a strict disciplinarian father figure and a cocky young upstart, but the specific themes of Whiplash have a unique resonance at this particular time and place. The plot, characters and themes would all feel right at home in a sports movie, and it’s not difficult to read the film as a veiled critique of the NFL, tackling the issues of abuse, corruption and self-harm that neither NFL nor Hollywood has thus far been able to address.

Whiplash follows the unique rhythms of a sports movie. Andrew is the young talent who is brought up to the big leagues before he is ready. Fletcher is his domineering coach who is tough with the kid but only does it because he wants to get the best out of him. There are grueling practices and competitions that feel a lot like sporting events, and it all culminates in a “big game,” a jazz concert at Carnegie Hall that has enormous personal stakes for both Andrew and Fletcher. Throughout it all, writer/director Damien Chazelle depicts the band room with the alpha male camaraderie of a sports locker room. Talk of sex hangs in the background of several scenes, and, of course, every musician in the band is male.

Beyond the structural similarities, the systematic abuse that the film portrays is impossible to divorce from what NFL players inflict upon themselves and each other in their quest for glory (and a supreme paycheck). The physical damage has been well-documented, but only in recent years has it become an issue of national concern. The book and subsequent documentary League of Denial illuminated the connection between football and neurodegenerative brain disease, and a rash of suicides by former and current NFL players raised alarms from even the most casual fan of the sport.

Consciously or otherwise, it seems that Chazelle is echoing those themes here. Even suicide factors heavily into Whiplash. A former student of Fletcher’s takes his own life, and Andrew’s father and the dean of the conservatory worry that he might do the same after suffering from his abuse for so long.

If Whiplash is in fact a subtle critique of the NFL, it may be the only one Hollywood will ever have to offer. With the NFL so carefully guarding its image, it seems unlikely that a major studio would be able to make a film – certainly not one using the NFL brand – that explored the issues facing the league right now: domestic violence, concussions, drug abuse (Any Given Sunday did it 15 years ago, before these issues had captured the zeitgeist). Meanwhile, independent studios probably do not have the budget to depict the game realistically and couldn’t withstand the inevitable lawsuit challenges from the NFL. Maybe the only way to make a film about the NFL was to make a film about jazz.

To be fair, there is no direct evidence that Chazelle intended viewers to make this comparison. But I keep thinking about an early scene around a dinner table in which the film directly compares football to jazz. Despite Andrew’s recent successes with studio band – he is its youngest member – the family friends with whom he is having dinner seem more interested in the accomplishments of their sons, who recently played and performed well in a Division III football game. We get the sense Andrew has had his talents undervalued before, but this time he snaps and verbally denigrates his peers’ accomplishments. After a tense back and forth, one of them tells him: “If you think it’s so easy, come play with us.” Andrew quickly retorts: “Four words you’ll never hear from the NFL.”

The football players are never seen from again, but the fact that Chazelle asks us to directly compare football and jazz (and the intensity of their training challenges) in this scene lends credence to the idea that Whiplash works as the much-needed critique of the NFL that cinema has so far been unable to tackle. Maybe he only included this scene with the football players because he has the same chip on his shoulder about the unrecognized toughness of jazz drummers that he instilled in his lead character.

Indeed, treating jazz like a sport, as he does throughout the movie, could simply be a plea for credibility from the musician-turned-filmmaker. But pop culture often works in mysterious ways, and the same issues of bullying, physical abuse and suicide that have plagued the NFL in recent years are raised here in an unexpected but safe context. Maybe that’s just what we need.

Whiplash Review: Plays Through the Pain to a Glorious End