Adam Neely is a New York City-based composer, vlogger, and jazz bassist, and he has a problem with the film Whiplash. Well, to be more accurate, he has a lot of problems with Whiplash. Damian Chazelle’s 2014 love letter to abusive student-teacher relationships invited audiences into the insular world of NYC jazz culture and was likely a lot of moviegoers’ first real experience with jazz music. But, as someone who went to a competitive music school similar to the one in the film, Neely is keenly aware that there is quite a bit that the film gets wrong.
For the first 10 minutes of his incredibly thorough 30-minute review, Neely is, admittedly, nitpicking. He highlights all the weird technical inaccuracies in the film, like the fact that some of the supposed jazz musicians look like buff jocks, or that J.K. Simmon’s character tells the entire horn section to “sharp that ninth” even though that doesn’t make any sense in context. But after getting all the pedantry out of his system and even conceding that there are a few things the movie gets “almost right,” Neely moves on to one of the film’s truly glaring inaccuracies: The idolization of Buddy Rich.
Miles Teller’s character in the film is an aspiring young jazz drummer, fresh out of high school, looking to break into the modern New York City jazz scene, which makes it all the more weird that his favorite drummer and musical idol is bandleader Buddy Rich. While Rich was admittedly a stellar technical drummer for his time, he was perhaps best known for his flashy personality and appearances on late-night talk shows. He had little to no influence on modern jazz, according to Neely, and you’d be hard pressed to find a young musician in New York City who would reference Rich in their top five or even ten favorite drummers.
Neely admits that Chazelle had reasons for included Buddy Rich in the story. As a bandleader, Rich was a notoriously abusive asshole, similar to J.K. Simmons’ character in the film. He’s also one of the few jazz drummers a wide audience would be familiar with. Referencing Rolling Stones’ list of ‘100 Greatest Drummers Of All Time,’ Neely notes that “white jazz big band drummers like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich rank significantly higher than black small jazz ensemble drummers Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, despite the fact that Tony Williams and Elvin Jones are indisputably better drummers with more of an influence on jazz.”
The obsession with Buddy Rich is really just a symptom of a larger problem in Whiplash, which is that it’s not really a movie about jazz. The film simply uses jazz as a vehicle to tell a story about ambition and the willingness to do what it takes to be great. Neely’s problem is that, in using the genre simply as a narrative tool, Whiplash sucks all the joy out of jazz and makes it seem like something emotionally exhausting that makes your hands bleed.
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