Mrs. Jiwaku and I saw Whiplash a week or so ago (it’s in theaters here in Jochiwon right now), and I’ve been ruminating. Some thoughts, in no particular order, in a suitably pretentious (and very long) list.
1. The music featured as “jazz” in the film is really, really disappointing.
1.1 I’m not going to say the music in this film isn’t jazz. But it’s not really good jazz, and if you love jazz, you know that.
This may sound controversial, but my biggest problem with it is that it’s overwhelmingly white. I’m not talking about the actors… though, well, yeah, that’s something we could talk about: I don’t know enough about the demographics of jazz programs to comment on that, to be honest: almost everyone who played jazz in my Canadian hometown was either white or East Asian (and mostly white), but New York is probably pretty different.
But I’m talking about the characteristic approach to the drums, and the feel of the music in general, and the conception of the drums within that music. This post over at Do the Math is very helpful in that regard, discussing the”stage” tradition and the “devotional” tradition and the difference in their feels, and how they line up with the conventionally racialized “feels” and “schools” in traditional jazz.
For those who aren’t into jazz, I’ll note that many jazz players do talk (more or less) about schools of playing in terms of race, but it’s not exclusionist or, necessary, essentialist. (Genes are not destiny.) Jazz has a complicated history in terms of race and that’s become embedded in the slang and the critical terminology, but jazz has never lacked room for white musicians or a “white” sensibility; figures as prominent as Ornette Coleman and Miles Davis used white players in their band, and they did so consciously, wanting some of that other sensibility.
That said, the black/white sensibility thing in jazz isn’t an either/or thing: it’s more of a tension between two poles: the European and the African, hence the “White” and the “Black.” I’d argue that everyone in jazz–of every background–is informed by the tension between the two poles, and that tension is what gives jazz its characteristic power, its energy and dynamism. Iverson suggests several specific dichotomies:
- African rhythms + European harmony
- African devotionalism/interconnectedness + European virtuoso soloing
In jazz, there’s a confluence of these things: the band plays interconnectedly, but people solo; there’s highly complex, fluid rhythm (so that many great drummers do rush or lag slightly on purpose and Fletcher’s violent outburst regarding that looks ridiculous) and there’s complex, highly nuanced harmony. Greatness as an individual, greatness in the team. The two poles pull at one another.
Well, that tension is not felt much in the music in Whiplash. (Hell, listening to the soundtrack, I’ve found some of the drum playing doesn’t even necessarily swing all that well; it feels squarish, like swing played badly… presumably because the emphasis is on fast drumming, not on feel. It felt like listening to big band jazz in a parallel universe where The Young Lions and free jazz never happened, or something… and whaddaya know, “Whiplash” is actually a 1970s composition. Yeah, that “cutting edge” 7/4 tune? That was wild and challenging in 1970-something… but in a way that white big bands were exploring; black big bands have never really been all that interested in “wild” 7/4 charts.
1.3 Maybe a fairer way to say this is that the film seems to think jazz sounds like what Midwestern white people who don’t listen to jazz today think contemporary jazz probably kinda-sorta sounds like. That’s so profoundly unfortunate it’s impossible not to start there. Especially once you watch the whole two hours and notice just how skewed the view of the band was in the movie. Remember that sax solo? No? Trumpet, trombone? Those horn players solo way more than the drummers do.
2. Andrew doesn’t behave like a jazz musician: he behaves like a certain kind of writer, maybe. Or maybe a painter or something? Most jazz musicians are relatively social, even if they have a loner streak. They have to be, because the music is collaborative, but they are also attracted to the music to some degree because of the kind of people they are.
Which is to say that jazz musicians hang out and listen to music together. They jam. They run tunes. They tease one another about needing to practice. They talk shit. They have lunch together. They run tunes together some more.
They practice alone too, but they don’t just sort of recede into their woodshed practice alone for months at a time so hard that they bleed, and then somehow suddenly become incredibly “awesome.” You can’t do that, because playing jazz is about responding to others, collaborating on the fly. You do need to practice, but a crucial part of practicing jazz is playing with other people. Hell, I’ve been practicing my saxophone for about two weeks after some time away from the horn, and already I’m already getting bored, feeling the need for other people to play with and react to. Camaraderie; solidarity; gossip; going drinking together; listening to music together; struggling with music theory together; going and listening to killer bands together, because YOU’RE IN NEW YORK CITY AND YOU CAN.
Instead, we get Andrew beating the crap out of his drum kit. Dramatic, illustrative of his frustration, but… well, so much context is missing that it seems like this is all lone, solitary self-torture Andrew does, and frankly that rings very, very false. If you’re so mad you’re attacking your instrument… you’re practicing wrong, and need a better teacher.
2.1 Andrew doesn’t seem to love jazz. He doesn’t seem obsessed with it, doesn’t seem to feel at all like he’s involved in some great adventure or journey or anything. He just seems to be obsessed with being in the best band. He wants his Top Best Dude #1 Award. Even at my most prickish, I’m-a-better-player-than-you phase (which was always tentative: someone could always overtake me, and saxophonists are always sort of sizing one another up mentally) I was never out of touch with the sense that jazz was this vast, incredible music that you could explore for a lifetime and never fully digest. I was always hungrily consuming whatever I could lay hands upon. I was always trying to figure out what kind of band I should try to put together next, even if I lived in Saskatoon and the likelihood was I’d be putting together a quartet with my guitarist buddy.
Andrew, in contrast, is reminiscent of those people you meet who love the idea of being a writer more than they love writing. You know how well those people do?
Usually, not very.
2.2 Andrew doesn’t seem to play jazz… not as most young musicians coming up do it. He doesn’t play in any small groups, which is where most of the interesting musical stuff happens anyway. Of course, in terms of the film, this would also provide some kind of much-needed pushback to the competitive, dog-eat-dog large ensemble’s social dynamics (which is to say, Fletcher’s apparent cult of personality). Moreover, the film doesn’t seem to understand that a drummer also has to be creative, supportive, and reactive… part of the group. Its aesthetics for “good drummer” are basically, “The auditory equivalent of shooting all the goddamned fireworks at once.”
Sure, drum solos can matter, and it fits Andrew’s Buddy Rich obsession, but the vast majority of the time, drummers are accompanists who complement and support the band. We never see Andrew struggle to get good at that accompanist role. The whole, “Hey, can you play 7/4 funk?” gimmick is… shallow. I think if you show people really, really fantastic playing, they’ll sit up and take notice. I think it’s patronizing to equate louder and faster with better.
Also, good musicians do sometimes sweat or look pained… sometimes. But they don’t default to looking like they’re birthing a full-grown hog out of their urethras, okay? That crap is rocker aesthetic: look how hard I’m playing! I’m playing so hard for you!
I don’t see Max Roach looking like he’s got a bullet wound through both his testicles in this video:
He makes it look easy. Because he’s a musician. He doesn’t have to playact suffering. He makes something difficult look easy.
Hell, even part of Buddy Rich’s schtick is making it look easy:
But you know who does make a big show of playacting suffering and pain, while bashing out long extended solos?
Just about every second rock drummer…
It’s pretty clear to me which mode Andrew adopts; it’s not clear why he would do that, except that Hollywood thinks you’re too stupid to get it.
2.3 Andrew doesn’t seem to play jazz well. I mean, the criteria for success that the film sets up is moronic: louder and faster = better? He lacks the kind of finesse that Fletcher ought to be pushing him to develop, if Fletcher wants to play midwife to an artist as profound as Bird. I mean, Buddy Rich was loud and powerful and fast, but the most amazing drummers I’ve seen were actually flexible, subtle, nuanced, and deeply responsive to what was around them. They embraced complexity and actually worked the rhythm in interesting ways. For example:
That man is in total control of the kit. He’s the fuckin’ boss of the kit, and he plays with finesse, and… he makes it look so easy. That solo is not as loud or as fast as Andrew’s, maybe, but it’s a thousand times more impressive. And I seriously doubt the director’s claim (in an interview I link elsewhere here somewhere) that a more musical depiction of the music would bore the audience.
In a sense, I feel like Andrew’s sense of how to be an awesome drummer kind of lines up with the (horrible) advice Dave King offers in his brilliant parody series Rational Funk: be an arrogant, ridiculous jerkoff.
2.4 In a sense, top-tier jazz is actually countercultural in the way well-played team sports are: your best groups are made up of consummate cooperators who put the group first. Individualism and collective creation go hand-in-hand in any collaborative artform, but especially in jazz.
Well, Whiplash has room for fascistic abuse as a form of artistic collaboration, and it has room for singular individual soloing… but it doesn’t have room for that balance of (a) ego-driven individualism, and (b) being a team player, that characterizes the best improvisational music. (This dynamic was clear to nonmusicians in decades past, so much so that the State Department sent jazz bands to the developing world as a propagandistic icon of American democracy and integrationism… they actually expected people with no familiarity with jazz to grasp it as self-evident, too.)
So it’s kind of ironic that the director compares Whiplash to sports movies, yet fails to make this obvious parallel part of the story.
Maybe the problem is actually that Hollywood wants and needs movies that valorize individualism? A very interesting film to compare is the 1996 UK movie Brassed Off, about a colliery brass band in a small town during the Thatcher era, which addresses a lot of the glaring issues I mention in this post–including the inclusion of a female musician, including the lack of musician solidarity and socializing, and much more. The sense of the band as a group, as something committed to by, and dependent upon, each of its members — and of a band as something that is built out of labour, sacrifice, and collective work to achieve something amazing together — is the film’s greatest strength. It rings much truer to my lifetime of musical experiences than anything in Whiplash.
(As an aside, the stuff I mentioned the other day about “boundary-loss” in collective music-making is also what I’m talking about. You may not love everyone in your band, but after playing together for a few months, there’s an undeniable bond or connection… even amid the tensions, even when you’re pissed off at one another. In the “black” tradition as Iverson characterizes it, this is actually much closer to the surface of the music, that’s all.)
3. I feel like Andrew, witnessing Fletcher’s really mediocre jazz bar happy hour gig, might… well, see him for what he really is, which is just a sad old “Jazz Nazi,” to recycle a term a buddy of mine used a lot in high school.
Seriously, that piano band he was playing with? We only see a little, but it’s not impressive. More like bland and mediocre, or that at least was my immediate impression. Polished, yes. Proficient? I suppose. I prefer jagged and passionate, though:
Fletcher isn’t passionate as a player, not the way he urges his students to be. He’s just sort of bland and correct: a typical Jazz Nazi. I’m pretty sure Andrew himself could have put together a more interesting small group out of classmates from Fletcher’s band. Well… if he were amore sensitive and nuanced drummer, anyway.
I actually expected Andrew, in that scene, to get over it after hearing the mediocre performance, and sort of decide that institutionalized jazz education was for the birds, or see through Fletcher’s cult of personality to the sad, failed musician at its core, or something.
4. I didn’t feel too bothered that the relationship between Andrew and the Girlfriend Who Never Was is aborted and then rubbed in his face. I did feel bothered that she felt like nothing more than a plot coupon, though, and I think Andrew’s dumping her made less sense than his awkwardness in the beginning.
Most of the guys I played in bands with in high school and as university freshmen were no less awkward around girls than our nonmusician friends, even if we were musically peacocking like our lives depended on it. (And we were, but we were also confused about why the Demi Moores and Suzanne Somerses of the world (or, okay, maybe it was just the the Chrissies of the world who inhabited our immature unconsciousnesses) weren’t just hopping into our laps when we cranked out chorus after chorus of “Blues Connotation” or “Straight, No Chaser.”
Which is to say that all the (straight, male) jazz geeks I knew at that age would have been delighted to have a girlfriend (or were delighted to have one when they did), and wouldn’t have dumped her just because they “needed to practice.” I’ve only known one musician who ever dumped someone claiming that he needed to focus on practicing… and to be honest, that guy was just making an excuse because he’d hooked up with the girl out of loneliness, and then realized he wasn’t interested in her.[2. No, it wasn’t me. It was a crazy drummer I knew once. And by “hooked up” I mean, went to this euphonium major’s house for lunch, slow-danced with her in her parents’ basement, and then, mid-ballad, stepped back with a look of horror and said, “I… I just can’t…” and fled, leaving her confused with soft music still playing in the background, and driving off and leaving her also without a ride back to campus. The point being that he was kind of an outlier in a lot of ways.]
4.1 Here’s a likelier scenario: Hypothetical Jazz Kid would be much likelier to just practice a lot, and assume she’s on board to “support” him and “sacrifice” time spent together for his own artistic growth… and then wonder why she eventually dumped him or just stopped calling a few weeks ago, because he never made time for her. Best scene: he runs into her at the theater, when he’s with his dad, and she’s with some other dude he knows, maybe someone from music school. Not the alternate drummer, mind, but maybe the laid-back, doesn’t-practice-enough trombonist from the lower-level band.
4.2 That said, I don’t have issues with Andrew sabotaging the relationship with the Girlfriend Who Never Was because he has his head up his ass. But I would like the film to realize that he had his head up his ass, and that dumping her didn’t make him a better musician at all. The film seems to think that his not dating the girl actually does contribute to his greatness. I have my sincere doubts.
4.3 On the other hand, this scene?
That, at least, rang true for me. Even at a much lower level of achievement, athletics was praised and valorized much more highly than music, even competitive music.
Example: My high school’s bands consistently won gold medals in national music competitions. Part of that was strategic contest selection, sure, and I think such competitions are ultimately less than meaningful, and even toxic… but we competed and won at the national level, okay? Because we were good. I don’t remember a single “pep rally” being held about that. On the other hand, our far-from-nationally-competitive football team’s upcoming games warranted pep rallies for “big” local matches… and to add insult to injury, the gold-medal-winning jazz band was expected to play at those rallies where students cheered for our mediocre, irrelevant little local football team.
So yeah, I get Andrew’s resentment. The dialog is written to make him sound like an arrogant prick, but he’s right: people don’t value the arts, don’t respect them, and don’t celebrate high achievement in them. But sadly that shapes the rhetoric of achievement in the movie itself.
If this were a sports movie, “The Big Game” would just get called “The Big Game” and would qualify as important to the audience. For a music film, you need the final concert to be at Carnegie Hall, and you need Fletcher to say stuff about how this is how you get a spot in the Lincoln Center jazz orchestra, for us to feel like there’s a stake in it. Because who gives a crap about music anyway?
4.3 In fact, the philistinism of American society towards the arts makes me feel that a better alternative to the Charlie PArker cymbal story (which I’ll get to in a bit) is the legendary story of Ornette Coleman having been attacked after a gig (in Texas?), beaten up, and having his sax thrown off a cliff. That would probably be a much better story about how a violent, discouraging experience is something a musician can overcome.
Except, you know, the people who violently attacked Coleman weren’t musical mentors, they were musical philistines. They were the equivalent of the football dudes that Andrew has to sit through dinner with, and his dad’s buddy, and the rest of his ignorant small town.
Whatever competition you see within jazz groups, I’ve experienced a sense of solidarity when it comes to being disrespected by outsiders. Everyone in the bands Andrew plays in has faced people snarking about “jazz” being old fashioned or boring. Everyone’s got some experience that falls into the shadow of that one Ornette Coleman had, whether it’s being ostracized as a band kid, mocked for trying to play jazz while being Chinese-American (or a girl, or gay, or whatever), having his buddies turn off his Miles Davis CD in the car because “that shit’s boring,” or just meeting with plain familial or peer indifference to their grandiose musical aspirations.
Mind you, in that scenario, Fletcher would need to be committed to the common cause, not an antagonist but a brother-in-arms. He’d be throwing chairs at the football players who mock the band, or the administrator who announces a funding cut to Shaffer’s jazz program. I’d love to see that movie. I’d love to see a Fletcher who tears a strip out of the administrator’s hide and gets fired for fighting for the program, instead of fighting for his own screwed-up agenda.
5. Which, while we’re on the topic of jazz kids and dating and female characters, an autobiographical datum: my first proper girlfriend was the pianist in a big band I played with. And that band was about one-third female. Our bassist was female. One of our sax players was female. A couple of the trombones and at least one of the trumpets were. The pianist was. I think we had a secondary drummer who was, too. While the balance has been different in each big band I’ve played in, there were always a few women in every band, and some of them got pretty close to parity, even. In high school, as a junior anyway, the top sax player in my school was a female student. In the University big band I played in, there were several women in the band, especially among the horns. Sure, there’s an imbalance–even now–in pro jazz and I’m sure there’s an imbalance in most jazz programs too… but I remember only one female musician in Whiplash. (A trombonist, I think she was.) What’s up with that?
I’m noting this as much because if Andrew was all, “I need a relationship with someone who’s into music like I am” (not that all musicians feel that way, by any stretch), there would have been female musicians around. The Girlfriend Who Never Was could have been a much more interesting character; maybe another drummer in competition with whom he eventually finds himself? A player in the top band who quits because she’s sick of Fletcher, which complicates the relationship? A player in the lower-level band, who isn’t interested in Fletcher’s band and who articulates a reasonable counter-narrative to Andrew’s/Fletcher’s?
Women have been playing jazz for about a century; they’ve been excluded from the canon and from depictions of jazz for most of that time, as well. D’ya think it’s time to maybe include a female jazz instrumentalist in a film for more than three seconds, guys? Shall we open the club? Because it’s not quite the sausage party we’ve been pretending. Not quite. And because it would have cost the filmmakers nothing to have a few more women on the bandstand, and because it would have been a more interesting story if there were even one female musician character.
6. I never studied at the top jazz program in my country (or any jazz program, actually), but I played with all kinds of bands (and not just jazz groups), and never once have I seen a drummer bleed on the kit. Sweat? Sure. Cough of phlegm? Yeah, a couple of times. Bleed? Never. Not even a drunk or very stoned drummer. Not even a drummer playing way harder and louder than he ought to have done.
6.1 Nor have I seen a big band that would be sticking around for Fletcher’s crap all that long. Seriously, people would have been quitting left and right. I would have quit long before he even got to humiliating a trombone player for being out of tune and not knowing it… and certainly long before the director starts slapping students. There’d be complaints, there’d be a hearing, Fletcher might be kept around with a warning. It would not have gone on for very long. Maybe in the 70s… maybe in the 80s. Today? Ha, I don’t think so.
Arts programs can be tough, and teachers can sometimes get away with a lot. (In my music program as an undergrad, one voice teacher basically cashed in on his students by insisting they take extra (paid) lessons with him, and “voice coaching” with his wife, whom they were also expected to use as an accompanist for all their recitals. Everyone knew, everyone realized it was wrong, but nobody did anything about it during my time there. He was a tough instructor from what I heard. But he was also a good instructor, and on the right committees, so nobody complained. Had he begun hitting students? That shit would have hit the fan, with a quickness.)
I’ll put it this way: I’ve quit better bands over much less… and, once again, I wasn’t at the top jazz school in America, which you’d think would give students a certain sense of entitlement. I wasn’t even at a school with a jazz program.
For comparison: apparently the Seoul Philharmonic’s director recently quit over allegations of abuse–albeit verbal and sexual abuse. Note, however, that in the case of the Seoul Philharmonic, it took less than a year for the complaints to become public and for the director to end up having to quit. That’s far from the long-term reign of terror attributed to Fletcher. (And that’s in an organization where most of the members are dependent on the ensemble for part of their livelihood, and where they don’t have the kinds of legal protections students have.)
6.2 That’s not to say I haven’t had band teachers who were sometimes jerks. My high school band teacher was sort of okay most of the time, but he was notorious for skewing the grades of any student who couldn’t go on competitive band trips. When my family’s economic situation made it necessary to choose between band trip and jazz theory lessons in my senior year, I chose the latter… and so, despite being, undisputedly, one of the top musicians in my school that year by a pretty significant margin, I didn’t get an A+ in band class.
I think the same thing happened to my sister’s band grade one year… and she was second bassoon in the city orchestra at the time; in fact, I think that was when my father finally accepted the fact that school grades aren’t somehow objective measures of performance. He also mocked the band teacher to his face, since that teacher’s main instrument was the bassoon as well, but my sister already played it better at eighteen than the teacher ever had. I think, by the way, that was when I realized what mediocrity can do to a person: twist them up with envy to the point where they hate anyone who succeeds even a little more than themselves.
The funny thing is, if the teacher had been tougher or pushier about music-related stuff, we’d have understood and taken it, even though we had less to gain than Andrew supposedly does in Whiplash. We were in the band to play, to improve and develop. We’d have accepted being told off for playing badly or out of tune or tempo, and would have seen him as tough but not necessarily unfair. Those of us who thought he was a prick, thought so because the things he was a jerk about were always personal.
For example, this teacher was notorious for calling a girl in a general education music class a “little slut” in front of a music appreciation class for being late (or, more likely, chronically late) and disrespectful. As an educator myself, I understand frustration with recalcitrant students who disrupt class. However, “You little slut” is simply unacceptable. A man like that doesn’t belong in the classroom. I think a complaint was filed. I think he was forced to apologize. But he was, in general, not abusive as a teacher, so he limped on toward retirement.
6.3 When I got moved to second chair tenor saxophone in University Jazz Orchestra, I took it like an adult. Not tackling, no shouting. I botched the audition, and took my lumps. When it became clear the director didn’t intend to let me solo, even after I showed that I’d built my chops up, and when I killed the re-audition in second semester, and he still didn’t promote me to first chair against all common sense and reason — and when it became increasingly apparent that it was because I wasn’t his good buddy — I also took it like an adult. (I needed the participation credit for my music degree, so grumbled to a few friends but dutifully — if dispassionately — played till the end of the year, and then quit and focused on small groups and my own projects as soon as I no longer needed an ensemble credit.) I was hurt, I was angry. I wasn’t violent. Popularity contests are a sign of a bad director, of course, and I think blind auditions are fairer, but tackling the director doesn’t help.
7. I have had a band instructor (not the same one as before–this one taught us in middle school in another city) who threw things at the drummers, and didn’t get fired. But:
- This was in the 1980s, when teachers could also headbutt students with impunity in Saskatchewan,[3. The guy who did that to me went on to become a school principal, believe it or not. Ah, the 80s.]
- It wasn’t to push them beyond their limits: he was just trying to stop them disturbing class with their noisy chit-chat,
- It was a conductor’s baton, not a chair, and he bounced it off a tympani at their heads, missing on purpose (though they wouldn’t have been hurt even if the baton’s cork handle had by chance struck one of them in the eye),
- He played it for comedic effect, and even the other percussionists in the band were chuckling once they got over the surprise. And finally,
- His behaviour was erratic in other ways too, of which the school was probably aware and sympathetic; there was a medical issue and we knew at least a little about that.
This teacher also happened to be pretty great, funny and odd and very passionate and extremely encouraging. He was also a true musician, always teaching and playing and evangelizing about music, running the city band and playing at church and doing things like handwritten arrangements of music overnight for unusual ensembles, just to encourage a musical family.
I don’t know that he ever aspired to be a Charlie Parker: he was a band director and organist, a teacher and a community musician, and he was excellent and seemed comfortable in the role. He inspired me and helped me to love music, something for which I’ll always be grateful. When I said that I wanted to learn jazz, he was unhappy to lose me as a student, and I remember some brief tension–lost income is always hard for musicians–but he also acknowledged that I’d learned about as much as I would from him, and tried to help find me a good teacher. (He, too, was a bassoonist.)
8. Whiplash is really about the pseudo-debate in America about whether it’s better to coddle young people, or Tiger Mom them into hardened, tragic awesomeness.
In typical American form, its presentation of this debate partakes of the fallacy of the excluded middle, where an arts educator can be bluntly honest and tough on students about what they need to improve, while also telling them what they’re doing right and encouraging them, or, even, you know, teaching them how to improve their skills.
Would that make for better drama in a movie? Maybe not… but I can see at least one way to make the film display awareness of that excluded middle: you develop the character of the band director Andrew started with, and instead of having Andrew booted from the school, he is booted down to the lower band… where he slowly recovers and gets a chance to see that Fletcher is in fact totally crazy, and a terrible band director, and unjustly respected within and without the school. Then he gets invited back, and has the dilemma: go back to being abused by a loser for a shot at a Lincoln Center Band gig, or stay with the humane band where music is a joy and where he’s forming relationships with musicians that will last a lifetime and birth truly inspiring creative projects. That story seems more interesting to me.
8.1 One thing that’s striking is that Andrew has only one teacher in this film: Fletcher.
This makes no sense.
Where’s Andrew’s drum instructor? What happens when Andrew comes to his drum lesson and says, “I need to learn ‘Whiplash’ for Fletcher’s band.” What else is Andrew studying that he sets aside to learn this one tune at the exact tempo? What does Andrew’s drum teacher think of Fletcher’s expectation that students can clap exact metronome tempos on cue? (I’ve never, ever seen anyone who expected that.) For that matter, what does Andrew’s music theory instructor think of Fletcher? What do the other ensemble directors think of Fletcher? What do older music students have to say about him?
When I was a music major, I interacted with six or seven different professors: one for music theory, three for composition (over the years), one for orchestration, several for history, and two for my major and minor instruments, as well as ensemble instructors and student TAs who ran the ear training workshops and piano and voice training workshops. That’s excluding profs I went to for help occasionally outside of class. I was interacting with a lot of different teachers. And what I learned in one class got carried over into the others. My theory lessons affected how I wrote counterpoint and thought about orchestration. My voice instruction helped me develop better breath control on the saxophone. My history classes influenced my approach to composition and orchestration. My study of the contrabass affected all kinds of things I didn’t quite realize at the time.
Not only that, there were tensions between the professors. My theory teacher and my music history teacher each taught us a version of set theory–and the music history guy, being a medievalist, had gotten it wrong. The theorist pointed this out when we came to her, confused; word got back to him, and he tried to feud with her for a year. Profs contradicted one another. Profs advised students about how to work with “problem” profs when they had to.
And then there’s student buzz: when I was a freshman, I was explicitly warned by several juniors and seniors never to go to a certain professor’s office alone, because his reputation was like Jian Ghomeshi’s, except, he was known to sexually harass both female and male students. I was even warned away from the guy before I disclosed that I was interested in majoring in the subject that he taught. (Lucky for me, the scandal broke before I was a sophomore, and I got to study with other composers instead.)
It’s a stretch to believe that the cult of personality depicted among Fletcher’s students would really develop; it’s crazy to imagine that everyone in the school would subscribe to it.
8.2 If someone made a film about an English instructor who threw chairs at Creative Writing students to make them better writers, I suspect nobody would take it seriously, though we romanticize writing and imagine all writers have an alcoholic phase or whatever.
Certainly, if it was a film about design or engineering education, or mathematics, people would find it ridiculous to have a prof throwing chairs at students to make them better.
The reason people take it seriously in Whiplash is because we’re a society of musical — or maybe just general artistic — illiterates. Musical greatness takes work, and talent, and dedication… just like being great at anything. But since it’s music, we also think it takes something else magical and invisible. The thing about the Charlie Parkers of the world is that even when their over-nice band teachers say, “Good job,” they don’t get complacent. They know it’s meaningless words and they’re unsatisfied with their own work. They keep hungering for, and seeking, excellence… even when they are famous and established and could rest on their laurels, they don’t.
But it’s also because we’re pedagogical illiterates. Most of us don’t really seem to know what good teaching is, or how it works. “Tough” teaching–bluntly honest criticism–is only helpful when it’s constructive. Encouragement is only worthwhile when the student knows what they’re being encouraged to work on. I tell my students that when they give peer feedback, they need to explain why someone else’s work is effective or ineffective. They need to specify what the student is doing right, and what they need to work on. Perfectionism, also, is destructive. We’ve all seen musicians who are technically perfect, and have no fire or spark in their playing. (And Fletcher’s approach to teaching wouldn’t even produce that. My sense, as an outsider, is that the sad reality’s more of a beige-dictatorship situation in jazz education programs, than anything else. Here’s soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome’s take on that dynamic.)
When a professional, grown-up band member notices a drummer, or a section of the band, playing out of time, he or she simply tells the drummer or the section to go practice with a metronome. Sometimes, the drummer or section is sent off to do that right away, on the spot. “Sectionals!” my jazz band director would say, and that meant, “You guys are sucking. Pull your shit together… TODAY.”
That, by the way, is far more embarrassing than being slapped around by your band instructor. “Go practice with a metronome,” when it’s warranted, feels like someone pointing out you’ve pissed your pants and failed to notice.
9. If Andrew really was so invested in the greatness of Charlie Parker, he’d surely have read the book about Parker that all those bloggers have been citing in the “Whiplash got the Charlie Parker story wrong” posts. (Or, at the very least, seen the movie Bird, which, problematic is it was, has something Bird’s early rebuff and makes the point that Bird was already phenomenal at the time, and in no physical danger.)
During my years as a music student, I voraciously read everything available. I signed out practically every jazz-related book from the library–as well as plenty of other music books, on everything from set theory to Carnatic (Indian) musical practices–and read them all, just as I signed out all the CDs and LPs I could from the public library and listened to them all, dubbing the good ones to audiocassette so I could re-listen. We all did that, unless we could afford to buy everything we liked. (Most of us couldn’t, and sometimes the LPs hadn’t even been rereleased on CD yet.)
Note that I don’t have an issue with Fletcher distorting the story — he distorted the truth about his own former student’s suicide, after all, and jazz is full of urban legends and mutated, exaggerated stories. But even though I wasn’t hugely into Bird in high school, I knew that story about Bird being shamed off the stage and coming back a year later to blow people away. What gets me is that nobody aside from Fletcher seems to know of the story, or realize it’s a distortion. Andrew’s reverence for Bird is, well… not even sufficient for him to do his jazz homework, I guess.
10. I have a great deal of trouble imagining Fletcher actually setting up Andrew in the way he did in the final gig. (Let alone the rest of the band’s reaction.) It was about as realistic as people bursting into song and highly choreographed dance routines, during their first meeting, outside of a Broadway musical.
There’s no way Fletcher could do that without making both the band and Fletcher look just as bad as Andrew does. And anyway, big bands rehearse. They practice before crappy gigs, let alone Carnegie Hall gigs. Even crappy three-chord rock bands at least run through all the tunes once before the gig… and that’s bands where everyone’s been playing together for years, let alone a band with a brand new drummer sitting in. You make time to rehearse, even if it’s last-minute emergency.
So, no, the bass player wouldn’t be puzzled at the chaos, or mutter, “What’re you doing, man?” He’d be saying, “Well, this is what happens when you don’t fucking rehearse for gigs. Man, this is the last time I ever play with Fletcher.” So, you see, Fletcher wouldn’t do that, because Fletcher wouldn’t want never to be invited to Carnegie Hall again.
It’s just too contrived. Too impossible to buy.
11. All that said, I feel weird being this hard on Whiplash.
Hollywood, like Washington, is ruled by idiotic focus groups and you can never tell how much of what ends up on the big screen is what the director intended, versus what did well in focus groups. Whiplash is obviously a better film than the much-celebrated Guardians of the Galaxy, or, indeed, most of the other films I saw in 2014. It’s just that it only achieves about half of what it sets out to do.
It’s a pretty good film about screwed up relationships and about pedagogical extremism. If you see it as a film about codependency, or about a teacher taking things too far, or about a kid driven by a toxic need to please an authority figure? Oh yeah. Andrew’s a brownshirt in the Jazz Nazi brigade. And the ending is a triumph… a tragic one, that is. (I was surprised to hear anyone saw it as anything else.)
If it’s supposed to be a movie about jazz? Not so good. Whiplash doesn’t know jazz well enough to be a movie about jazz. It doesn’t understand or care about jazz enough to pull it off, and I don’t mean kid gloves and “respect” but rather deep, profound familiarity. Maybe Chazelle does know more than the film suggests–maybe he had to accommodate stupid film execs pushing the film in directions he didn’t want to go? I’m not sure, but the movie’s representation of jazz music itself is very disappointing. It’s that simple. I think that’s why it’s attracted so much ire and so much loud criticism from people who do know, love, and understand jazz.
I think also, it’s the sense of a lost opportunity. It really could have been a great jazz film. I suspect Chazelle’s a better director than he is a screenwriter, and that he didn’t seek enough feedback from musicians (and yes, he should have, despite his experience in high school stage band). Everything wrong with the film proceeds from there.
Perhaps that’s the greatest irony: like so many screenwriter-directors, Chazelle seems to want to be self-sufficient, and his film pays the price. There’s an irony there, in that he falls into the same trap that Andrew does in privileging the poverty of individual virtuosity over the sublime wonders achievable through collaboration.
7 thoughts on “Thoughts on Whiplash”
Great, thought-provoking post on a subject dear to you, but you should have led with “Whiplash is obviously a better film than the much-celebrated Guardians of the Galaxy, or, indeed, most of the other films I saw in 2014. It’s just that it only achieves about half of what it sets out to do.” Because, if I just stumbled across your post and read a few paragraphs, I’d figure the film wasn’t worth my time or money.
While I’m most definitely a jazz philistine (among other things) as I grew up in a household without music, but I believe that most people films judge films on their quality instead of subject matter. I know I’d have never cared to see the likes of “Annie Hall” as I’m about as far from a New Yorker as one can be, “Jaws” as I don’t care much for the ocean or sharks,” and “Schindler’s List” /”The Bridge Over the River Kwai”/”Saving Private Ryan”/”Life is Beautiful” due to the horrors of war and the evil that…ahem…”god’s” creations are cable of, if they weren’t of some great merit above just their story-lines.
And judging from what I’ve seen of most people waiting to buy movie tickets, I’m far from the only one that considers a film’s quality as the main measure of separating my money from my wallet or else the likes of the two “Smurfs” movies would have had a much larger box office tally than they did.
Eh, I suppose I could have led with that. But it does raise the question of how wrong someone can get the central “topic” of the film (not subject, which is screwed up pedagogical relationships, but the topic, which is jazz drumming) and still say something worth hearing. “Annie Hall” is about relationships–which is universal, and not just a NYC thing–and Jaws is about a community thrown into panic by the unknown. The shark in jaws is onscreen only a little, whereas in Whiplash there’s a lot of jazz and a lot of drumming and a lot of pedagogy right onscreen.
My feeling about Whiplash is that if someone made a film about the race to figure out the structure of DNA — some competition between two labs, who eventually learn to work together, and the characters actually see the DNA using high school microscopes — and then set the film in 2015, they’d be ridiculed and people would call the film garbage. But when someone does the equivalent with jazz in a movie, it’s praised to high heaven.
As for The Smurfs, that’s apples vs. oranges. People go to The Smurfs movies because their kids want to see them, or because they want to take their kids to something unobjectionable for kids. I think a more apt test subject for how much of the audience cares about quality would be the box office for, say, the Transformers franchise. (I, personally, would also add most of the superhero films of the past few years, but since I suspect you’ll disagree, let’s stick to Transformers, which is what Whiplash was really in competition with for “quality” laurels, since only a tiny fraction of English speaking filmgoers are willing to read subtitles or go to that indie movie in the cinema across town.)
In any case, as one friend on Facebook noted, it’s also probably the case that the more you know about a subject, the harder it is to enjoy a film about that subject by a non-expert: as an example, he noted that people who were part of the folk scene in early 60s apparently excoriated Inside Llewyn Davis in much the same way I did Whiplash. (Though in response, I noted my sense that ILD actually is well-written and tells an intelligent story–which I don’t think Whiplash does–and the music doesn’t sound horrendously wrong for the period from what I’ve listened to since.)
But yeah, it’s also partly my own disappointment since there can only be so many jazz movies in a year, or a decade, and there will be fewer and fewer of them as time goes by… and to have this film sit in people’s minds as a “jazz” movie is just kind of sad to me.
“The Overnighters” isn’t a film I’d have originally chosen as my favorite of 2014, especially due to the subject matter, but it’s the quality of the direction in dealing with this modern, real-life “Grapes of Wrath” movement into the oil fields of North Dakota that makes it one of the most riveting, and surprising (and then not all that surprising concerning the hypocrisy of religion), films that I’ve seen in years.
I hadn’t heard about The Overnighters but it looks great. I’ll have to check it out. By the way, did you see it in the CGV in Daejeon? We live in Jochiwon now, and managed to catch Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) there the other day, before a Costco run. (Though I have to say I’m surprised that the Megabox in Jochiwon actually runs better films than I remember CGV in Bucheon ever screening: we’re probably going to do see The Good Lie tomorrow.)
Apa yg menarik then?
Are you asking about more interesting jazz movies, or more interesting things in general? There are plenty of more interesting things than Whiplash in each category, I assure you.