|Probable dialogue: “Come on, swing, |
you mother— SWIIIIIING! YEAH! YEAAAH!”
So, I hear the big hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival was Whiplash, a movie about the tumultuous relationship of an abusive, hard-driving jazz drum teacher and his student, and the shatteringly emotional, high-stakes world of jazz education...
Now, I've been... ahm... I... gaha... yeah. Let's everybody settle down... try to keep it together.
I guess any mainstream acknowledgement of the existence of jazz, and that playing music is a thing people do, is a good thing, but I have to say, I am cringing from the get-go here. I look at the still, and all I see is a very sympathetic drum teacher understandably screaming at his student for not knowing how to set up his drums, and for having just rotten-looking technique. (Alternate probable dialogue: “You play like an actor who picked up the drums four months ago for a role in some crummy made-for-cable-melodrama!!!”)
From the Salon piece on the film:
This is a muscular and accomplished work of kinetic cinema built around two tremendous acting performances, and it’s really about teaching and obsession and the complicated question of how to nurture excellence and where the nebulous boundary lies between mentorship and abuse.
Chazelle [the director] clearly understands the intensely competitive world of music schools in general and jazz education in particular,
Italics mine. College was intensely something, but I don't know if competitive is the first adjective that springs to mind. There was a little bit of that, and there was always some judging of abilities going on among the students, but mostly everybody was just really into music. Maybe I went to the wrong schools.
but “Whiplash” is about jazz in almost exactly the same way that “Black Swan” is about ballet. Miles Teller (of “21 & Over” and “The Spectacular Now”) really does play the drums, and that’s where his character, a socially awkward 19-year-old conservatory student named Andrew, is most at home. (I’m pretty sure a professional drummer is used for the most difficult passages, but Teller’s pretty good.)
No, he's not. I saw the photo.
The musical performances in the film are intensely compelling, and drive the drama forward to a large extent, just as the big game drives a football movie or opening night drives a backstage musical. Chazelle also captures the fact that music is always a physical endeavor, a fact exaggerated by the demands of the drum kit; Andrew literally sheds blood, sweat and tears in his pursuit of greatness.
Well, Andrew is an asshole. If he's in this for “greatness.” Maybe I could stand to watch a real musician beat some decent artistic and human values into this kid for 90 minutes, after all...
More after the break:
Versions of this story could be told (and have been told) in the worlds of sports, theater, the fine arts, science and engineering, and numerous other demanding disciplines. Indeed “Whiplash” is in some respects a military film, a boot-camp film, with J.K. Simmons’ suave and profane Terence Fletcher as the drill sergeant. Fletcher leads the top-ranked jazz ensemble at New York’s top-ranked music school, and he rapidly seizes on Andrew, both for his obvious talent and his obvious vulnerability. From the first moment it’s clear that there’s something sadistic in Fletcher, an urge to dominate, to break down his students’ personalities and remake them in his own image. But the question Chazelle wants to ask us is not an easy one to answer: Is some of that domination and deconstruction necessary if we want to train great drummers, great dancers, great doctors and great engineers?
Sure, like all stupid questions, it's not an easy one to answer. Why the hell would “we” want to train great drummers? They're not that scarce, and society has no particular value for them, beyond getting them committed to a large amount of student loan debt; nearly all of them have to struggle to stay employed. Trying to turn someone into a dedicated, career musician, who is not already motivated beyond all reason to be one, is just sadistic. And I object to the whole idea of training musicians, like the point of art is to beat the Russians for a gold freaking medal. It's offensive.
Musicians are self-training. They get at most a few hours a week with a teacher, professor or instructor who gives them a little bit of information, a little bit of motivation, and a little bit of an idea of professional practices and standards.
Fletcher will start the band and stop them seconds later — after four bars, or even two — to hunt down an out-of-tune trombonist, or swap out a front-line player for an alternate. He pits Andrew against two other drummers, including the older incumbent, in a harrowing, hours-long showdown aimed at compelling one of them to play a fantastically difficult beat (on an up-tempo composition called “Whiplash”)
Not Wipeout. Whiplash. Keep that straight. And it's not going to sound like the Mr. Holland's Opus of big band arrangements, so stop thinking that.
exactly the way he wants it. But as his sadomasochistic relationship with Andrew develops into malice, brutality and even literal violence, our understanding of Fletcher becomes more complicated. Late in the film, Andrew sees Fletcher playing jazz piano in a nightclub — quietly, and beautifully — and the two have a drink while Fletcher explains his pre-modern educational philosophy: “No words in the English language are more dangerous than ‘good job.’”
Oh, ram it, Fletcher. No one who even sort-of believes that would ever say it. Probably they don't even know they believe it. It's an unbelievable line, and stupid.
I guess I shouldn't be looking a gift horse in the mouth, because if the thing's a hit, it will probably encourage some new people to take up the drums. But it would be lovely if they could make a film about the arts that is not a) completely false, b) not purely about egos, and c) not purely about high performance.