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Whiplash and Birdman: Two films that shine a light on the emotional toll of success

This article is over 9 years, 3 months old
Whiplash and Birdman are two films that ask serious and relevant questions about the human costs of artistic achievement, writes?Nick Grant
Issue 2437
Miles Teller, left, as Andrew and J.K. Simmons as Fletcher in Whiplash
Miles Teller, left, as Andrew and JK Simmons as Fletcher in Whiplash

Two exhilarating US films are competing for best picture at the 2015 Oscars and are now on release across Britain.

Both are set in New York and focus on the emotional cost of striving for artistic perfection. 

Director Alejandro González Iñárritu spent 30 days shooting Birdman in and around the St James Theatre off New York’s Times Square.

His film depicts a new play during its premiere, using the theatre, including its lobby and labyrinthine backstage and roof areas. 

His daughter, lover, the cast, producer and technical staff crowd the tacky rooms, corridors and stairwells as author and actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) tries to direct.

Many real artists are cited in the script, as well as self-mocking comments on the hollow gimmickry of action movies.

The score is mostly a rumbustious solo jazz drum workout by Antonio Sanchez. Unsurprisingly, it’s been nominated in nine categories. In contrast new director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, with five nominations, was shot in a mere 19 days.


Miles Teller plays 19 year old music student Andrew, determined to emulate his idol Buddy Rich. He’s juggling poverty, a loving but distant father and his attraction to a woman. 

But Andrew prioritises his desire for drumming greatness with all the blood, sweat and tears that ensue. His drive attracts the conservatory’s most intimidating teacher Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons), who perversely believes that students succeed through humiliation and competition. 

Every teacher and student will recognise the dedication, despair and elation entailed in reaching for excellence in a performing art. However, it will also have viewers arguing about the balance between means and ends.

Whiplash is a timely antidote to the X Factor-style representation of artistic achievement, which can suggest that talent is innate and needs simply to be “discovered”. Real achievement involves years and years of often painful graft. 

It’s a shame that this word is more synonymous with crime than work in the US. So despite some weaknesses, Whiplash illustrates a kind of labour theory of artistic value. It’s definitely worth seeing.


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