It takes a lot to be a Wildcat, but what we may often forget is how much it took to be a Wildcat. No one had an easy time making it to Evanston; there were undoubtedly sacrifices and detractors and doubters along the way. Whiplash, the newly-released jazz-driven drama film, reminds us of all of that. Everyone at Northwestern should see it.
The film follows young jazz drummer Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) as he fights to break into the ranks of his prestigious music conservatory. To stand out, he must impress his vicious bulldog of an instructor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Fletcher is brutal, uncompromising and a perfectionist in the harshest sense. He demands greatness, even if it means physically beating it out of his students. This ruthlessness, no matter how extreme, carries a paradoxical allure for Neyman – his need for personal musical transcendence takes precedence over the abusive nature of the relationship.
From a critical standpoint, the movie consistently astounds. The musical moments are gorgeously shot, the score is frenetic and Teller and Simmons are both absolute eye-magnets. These are fascinating, complex characters – Teller reaches profound heights of energy and depths of tragedy, and Simmons might be the best villain we will see in theaters all year. If just for its effectiveness alone, see Whiplash. And if you attend a demanding institution like Northwestern, expect some deeply relatable themes to boot.
Whiplash takes a firm hold of the question, “How much would you give up to be successful?” and refuses to let it go until it has wrung out every possible answer. Lines blur, motives grow more and more complex, and the divide between failure and triumph becomes less and less distinguishable. As you watch Neyman push himself past each successive physical and mental hurdle, something begins to ring true. The obsessive need to succeed feels familiar, and it should. Everyone at Northwestern has, in some form or another, replicated the sacrificial story of Andrew Neyman. We have given up a lot to be where we are. We have all played until our fingers bled onto the kit.
Think of your high-school self for a second. What did you lose to be at Northwestern? Many of us lost time, certainly. Hours studying and over-preparing. Hours doing community service and plugging away at resume-padders. Hours devoted to higher numbers on a piece of paper. We could have been doing plenty of other things, certainly, but we chose to relinquish our time and give ourselves a shot at being great. Maybe we chose to give up a life at home and we went to a boarding school. Maybe we hit the gym early for extra practice instead of sleeping in. Maybe we chose to take summer jobs instead of going on vacation. Whatever the case, sacrifice was an ever-present dynamic for many of us in high school. For many of us, sacrifice is what brought us to Evanston.
Now we stand as the products of these prior sacrifices, and honestly, can we call ourselves better for them? In Whiplash, we see the immediate repercussions of Neyman’s sacrifice, but the long-term is left ambiguous. We never see if Neyman’s choices ultimately lead to something positive or negative; we never see the final product. But when we look at ourselves, it is all right there.
Think of the sacrifices we make at Northwestern. Think of the time we spend seeking greatness – what do we lose? We spend hours in the library instead of going out and doing life with people. We shut ourselves in our rooms when someone right down the hall might need our help. We often elect not to go out, not to see each other’s shows, not to take part in each other’s philanthropies, all because we choose to spend our time elsewhere. We sacrifice people in exchange for our success, and just like Whiplash, the consequences of that idea are left up to us.
Whiplash, at its core, centers around a destructive relationship between a student and his teacher. Neyman knows that Fletcher will make him great, so it does not matter that all of the nasty side effects destroy parts of his life. Maybe right now, we have that same problem with Northwestern. This is a great place – a proud institution with passionate students and tangible spirit – but we might be sacrificing the best parts of being here in exchange for the perceived glory that the university promises us. It is not Northwestern’s fault; it is our fault. Striving toward personal achievement sometimes comes at the expense of working toward a more unified campus. Many of us grew up with that goal-oriented mindset, and at times, it still rears its head.
I am not saying this is an epidemic – more of a symptom – but it is persistent and pervasive, and we all need to take steps to remedy the problem. The definition of our greatness has to come from ourselves. That might still mean hitting the books and shooting for that 4.0, but if life has taught us anything, it is that our relationships ultimately give us the fulfillment that we strive for. Buying into a creed of individualism will not make a better Northwestern, but what will make a better Northwestern is 8,000 students who commit to a unified community.
Whiplash speaks uniquely to our university. It shows us the implications of a warped resume-building mindset. Many of us worked incredibly hard to be here, and we still work to reach the next step on our individual ladders, but even with all of Northwestern’s philanthropy events and homecoming crowds and mental health outcries, we still occasionally struggle to prioritize our fellow Wildcats. The balance between our own well-being and that of our campus can be a tough line to draw, but it is one we have to start looking for.
Whiplash stands as a poignant warning for Wildcats, and it might be an essential one. It reveals where our student body stands today, and if we face that reality head-on, we can take the film’s ambiguity and turn it into genuine triumph.