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Whiplash drums up the tension, but doesn't do justice to jazz (movie review)

February 22: In the 2015 Academy Awards announced today, Whiplash won three Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor, Best Film Editing, and Best Sound Mixing. It had also been nominated for Best Picture and Best Writing – Adapted Screenplay.

Whiplash [2014]
Directed by Damien Chazelle
ByTowne Cinema (November 14-27, varying times)

Whiplash starts with a drumbeat – one that becomes steadily faster and fiercer. We look down a long white corridor and there, silhouetted in a doorway, is Andrew Neiman [Miles Teller], playing his heart out on the drums late at night. And then an older man appears, listening carefully. When Andrew stops, he orders him to keep going – and play harder than ever.

Left to right: Miles Teller as Andrew and J.K. Simmons as Fletcher. Photo by Daniel McFadden, Courtesy of Sony Pictures ClassicsThat scene sets the tempo for this movie – a breakneck-paced examination of a toxic relationship between student and teacher. Full of unexpected twists and jolts, it's 106 minutes of psychological intensity almost to the level of breakdown.

As a piece of cinema, this film is brilliant: beautifully shot, tightly directed, and well-acted. But I suspect most jazz musicians (especially drummers) and educators are going to have problems with it, because its presentation of jazz and its processes is seriously warped.

Andrew is a first-year student at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Manhattan [possibly based on the Juilliard School], which he describes as the greatest music school in the country. He has immersed himself in jazz and drumming for years, and hero-worships Buddy Rich.

Terence Fletcher [J.K. Simmons] is a jazz pianist and teacher at the conservatory, renowned for his high standards, and always on the prowl – even late at night – for new talent for his award-winning Studio jazz band. Cool and elegant in a tight black T-shirt and jeans, he seems the epitome of the ageless jazz musician and an obvious role model for Andrew.

Fletcher sees both talent and drive in Andrew, and invites him in as an alternate drummer in the studio band. There, we see the students playing playing two jazz standards. The first is a mainstay of student big bands: “Caravan” [1937], popularized by Duke Ellington. But the second (and the film's namesake) is both more challenging and less well-known: the 1973 composition, “Whiplash”, by American saxophonist and big band composer Hank Levy. It features not one but two challenging time signatures, beginning in 7/4 and then moving to 14/8.

It's not an easy piece, and has lots of places where students can make mistakes. But, with Fletcher, that's not wise: the smallest mistake sets him off.


See what Ottawa's real big band leaders and student musicians say about each other and making music:


He's a petty martinet, and his pedagogical style only leads to misery for his students. He screams insults at them, alternating swear words with anti-Semitic and homophobic insults. He accuses students of being off-key when they're not; he fires them from the band with no warning and for little reason. He expects students to understand instantly, instead of clearly explaining what he wants. He sets students against each other, making them compete in impossible ways for the chance to perform as a core player in a major competition.

He's a bully, who has chosen that approach in order, he says, to push his students out of their comfort zone and into working far harder than they would otherwise. Several times in the film, he refers to an incident in the summer of 1936, when the then-16-year-old Charlie Parker got up to play in a late-evening jam with Count Basie and his Barons of Rhythm. Somehow Parker got ahead of the rest of the band, and kept playing his solo.

The way Fletcher tells it in the movie, drummer 'Papa' Jo Jones finally stopped Parker by throwing a cymbal at Parker's head, almost decapitating him and forcing him off the bandstand.

The way Stanley Crouch describes the incident in his recent biography of Parker, Kansas City Lightning, Jones repeatedly tried to get Parker's attention, and had to resort to 'dinging' a cymbal loudly on the floor. That caused Parker to jump and finally alerted him to the fact he needed to ease out of the solo – to the laughter of everyone in the place [p. 154].

Crouch interviewed an eye-witness to the scene. I believe Crouch.

Fletcher says that that humiliation forced Parker into working far harder than he had ever done before, and when he returned a year later, he had jumped a whole level in ability into the legendary 'Bird'. So he uses his misinterpretation of that incident as an excuse for physical abuse – kicking drums over, and even throwing furniture around the room the band rehearses in – in order to try to push his more talented students into genius.

He believes that his behaviour, alternating between the sweet and the nasty (the sweet sections are, in fact, much scarier than the nasty) but never allowing his students to think they've actually succeeded in doing a good job, is the best way to motivate excellence.

But why do the students – and particularly Andrew – accept this monstrous behaviour? It's a mixture of ambition and pride on their part, and manipulation by Fletcher, which does ring psychologically true. But what I can't see Fletcher's mind games actually producing is self-discipline, teamwork and trust – qualities which are absolutely necessary for jazz ensembles. Fear may get immediate results but long-term it doesn't produce the internal motivation or imagination to improve.

Yes, Charles Mingus was a genius who produced some of the greatest jazz of the 20th century. And, yes, he reportedly physically attacked his sidemen and threw a $20,000 bass at audience members who wouldn't shut up. Correlation is not causation: I see no reason why his having an explosive temper necessarily made him either a better composer or a better bandleader or made his sidemen play any better.

What the violence (actual and implied) does produce is an exciting film, albeit leaving you continually dreading how bad things really are going to get. Director Damien Chazelle never lets the film flag, infusing it throughout with big band music and drumming to keep it kinetic and interesting.

Director of Photography Sharone Meir does an amazing job of shooting the musicians and their instruments, bringing out the shine in the brass and the richness of the wood paneling in the practice rooms, and using unusual angles to let you properly see all sections of the band. And he has an eye for the telling detail: when Andrew's hands start to bleed from over-practicing, you can see every drop. And the practice rooms, the backstages of concert halls, the other student musicians – all look authentic.

J.K. Simmons dominates the screen as Fletcher. His face is so expressive, with deep frown marks, that you can hardly look away. His charisma makes Fletcher's control of his students plausible. Similarly, Miles Teller makes the love affair between Andrew and his drums believable: he is an ambitious, tactless, and completely obsessed young student, determined to do anything to succeed.

But, as a film about jazz, Whiplash has some serious flaws. Firstly, there's effectively no women musicians: we only see one playing alto sax in a student combo Fletcher is auditioning, and he dismisses her after a few seconds with a misogynist slur. While jazz is still male-dominated, this just isn't accurate: I have heard many talented women student jazz musicians, and when it comes to professionals, there are many women in the top jazz ranks in Canada. Just in big bands, for example, L'Orchestre National de Jazz de Montreal, featuring some of the best players in the country, is directed by Jennifer Bell. Christine Jensen, Marianne Trudel, Lorraine Desmarais, and Jill Townsend all run major big bands. Internationally, Maria Schneider and Carla Bley are renowned for leading and composing for big bands. In 2014, not to include women even as supporting musicians is unbelievable.

Secondly, I had real problems believing that Teller was actually that talented as a jazz drummer; I've definitely heard student drummers who were better. And, while big band drumming, which is what we're primarily shown in this film, does require a stronger presence, I didn't like the repeated implication that excellence in jazz drumming is directly related to how fast and how intensely you play. The really great jazz drummers I've heard certainly can play fast and loud at times – but their repertoire is far more varied than that.

And by concentrating on Andrew's journey as a singular musician, the movie misrepresented what jazz is. It's a conversation, with musicians working together as an ensemble. We're never shown Andrew playing with others except in classes – how could he get better by only practicing alone?

Oddly enough, I can accept Fletcher's actions – even his resorting to violence – as more likely. Not just because of dramatic licence, but also because we've seen all too often recently how powerful people in institutions – particularly those who bring glory to the institution – can get away with repeated abuse over decades.

So, as a study of institutional abuse, this movie works really well. As a character study of the dangers of ambition, it's excellent. But in terms of representing jazz as a collaborative music to be enjoyed, it falls down badly.

It's a very good film, but not a very good jazz film.

    – Alayne McGregor

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