Friday, January 24, 2014

Oh, I don't know...

Probable dialogue: “Come on, swing,
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!!!”) 

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. 


Michael Bettine said...

Sounds awful. I only hope the drummer stabs and kills his tormentor in the end…

Todd Bishop said...

Right after the car chase. Actually, I would go see that.

Marquis De Sane said...


Ridiculous Hollywood.

Todd Bishop said...

Noh my God. This thing is gonna suck. I kind of want to see it just so I can hate it-- kind of a perverse Vincent Vega type of thing “It'd be worth him doing it just so I could catch him doing it.”

There's this, too.

julius said...

I'm starting to respect your little echo chamber here much less. Maybe the movie does suck. Maybe it's not perfectly correct about drumming, or not even realistic. But as an artist, you're pissing all over someone else's artistic endeavor. Not only that, you haven't even watched the movie.

I hope no one ever judges your music the same way you judge things. That would be a disservice to you, I'm sure.

Todd Bishop said...

Oh, well, you can't please everyone. Since I haven't seen the movie, what I wrote was as much about the Salon commentary as it was about the movie itself. Unfortunately, what little I have seen of it-- the still, the Salon quotes, and the clip shared by MDS above-- are so full of howlers that they confirm my worst fears about the thing. I'm not judging the film as a work of art, I'm expressing dread-- partially-confirmed-- at what appears to be yet another sloppy, sophomoric film handling of the jazz world-- my world.

The filmmakers are going to be fine-- they just made a big splash at Sundance, and they're going to make a lot of money for themselves and for their investors, and everyone's going to get a lot more work out of this thing. I'm happy for them. But, you know, if you're going to make a name for yourself making a movie about people in the Appalachians or a Honduras coffee plantation, you may have to put up with a little bit of grumbling from the locals about how good of a job you do presenting their lives.

sublicon said...

That still alone makes me cringe.

This reminds me of what the movie Drumline was to people who actually played in drum lines, whether in high school or drum corps or both. It was an excruciating movie and created all these embarrassing associations in the minds of the general public after it took off.

I don't think that will happen with this, but it'll likely have every single drum student and teacher at Berklee, The Collective and any other contemporary music conservatory facepalming for an hour and a half.

Also, I'm appreciative of your echo chamber.

Fred said...


I saw the movie and I thought he was okay, or at least helpful to understand some things in this world. Of course it's a movie and it's fiction, and we should discuss and judge it in the first place by movie making's standards, not by jazz musicians standards and the one sided and reformed view view it gives to jazz history... (I hope it wasn't meant to be a documentary about jazz after all)

About the values and human behavior that the movie exposes, however, I agree with you that they're outright negative and destructive. I doubt (and would regret) if the movie maker really wanted to praise them. I saw the movie rather as a critique of these values, which are nonetheless real and prevalent in society, and the arts are not free of them. "(individual) hard work, competition, suffering, physical pain, living like a monk, looking down on people who don't share the same ambition or have the same work ethic as you do, ...", it's just where the ruling class wants us to go. (and where a lot of people do go, also in jazz or music scene)

But the scenes in the movie are so over the top that it can't be meant as a hymn. Or do I overestimate American class consciousness (and that of its movie makers)?

Some scenes I liked, because they were either recognizable or tongue in check:

- the conductor who pats the drummer at his first audition "just relax, have fun" (you know that the movie is not exactly about "fun")

- the family dinner "there's so much talent here around this table" - scene. The aunt listing Andrew's nephews achievements in all kinds of sports, and duh... "oh, and Andrew with his drumming!" (almost forgotten)

- The "double time swing" scenes. I bet the actor has been casted to play at his worst to really make it awful ("make big moves with all your limbs, hit the cymbal nearly on the bell, do everything you shouldn't do to achieve a double time swing"). Also the "I met a new kid practicing his double time swing", and it turns out to be the same drummer who he was with in the other combo (so absolutely no "new kid" at all)

- the look on the face of the first drummer when Andrew earns his place as a pageturner. This guy (Nate Lang) does a really good job to my opinion.

- after he gets a compliment of his teacher (or after a good rehearsal or something), Andrew finds the courage to ask his girlfriend out (he repeats this after Fletcher has asked him for his new band). Cliché, but recognizable.

- "Bob Ellis on the drums!" at the pizzeria. I'm sorry, but Bob Ellis? Anyone? (i thought it was a speech writer) Must have been deliberately mixing real references with fictitious. Also some other names seem like tongue in check references. Terence Fletcher = Fletcher Henderson + Terence Blanchard? (the one big band arranger and the "multi award winning" musician?)

- The 6 am or 9 am lesson schedule ("be on time"). I guess he just reversed the beat - 6 is 9 just upside down - and it winks to the later scene where Andrew has to get "upside down" in the car crash to arrive on time for the gig. Surviving a truck crash by the way, leaving his wrecked car in the middle of the road and hurrying for the gig, if the director doesn't give a little message here like "don't take this movie too literal"...

- the "wrong tune" in the final concert. (we were already warned in a previous scene where he lost his score)

- The similarities with "Rocky". Teller has some of Sylvester Stallone-presence. The end drum solo is like one of rocky's final fights, when he still overcomes after being beaten severely.

- The final scene might have been a wink to Robert Altmans "the Player", a critique of Hollywood movie making business. In order to reach a bigger (and supposedly dumber) audience, the Greek tragedy has to get a happy Hollywood ending. (with a way too long, over the top drumsolo in this case)