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“Whiplash”: Bang on the Drummer All Day

Whiplash!

I was in band for all three years of junior high. I was in the last group allowed to audition. By then all the cool saxophone slots were taken, I couldn’t make flutes or any brass instruments work, clarinet reeds tickled my mouth to distraction, and my rhythms were judged inadequate for their percussion needs. By process of elimination they assigned me to the bass clarinet, an instrument that’s like the love child of a clarinet and a saxophone that lacks the clout and pizzazz of either of its parents. The mouthpiece and reed were a larger, better fit for me than the normal, socially acceptable clarinets. I liked the sound, loved the foghorn rumble of the lower register. Higher octaves were like fingernails raking across my brain, and our parts were usually boring. The percussion-section runt who played the triangle frequently had more interesting measures to play than we did.

When my high school years approached, I was relieved that the art classes I’d dreamed of taking left no room for band class anymore. After I turned in my tenth-grade schedule, one of our conductors sat me and a few other quitters down for a Serious Talk, as if our decision to opt out of the grueling rigors of high-school marching band would ruin our lives and resumés, possibly turn us into dope fiends. It didn’t work. I was free.

I was surprised and saddened when quitting cost me a few friends. I wasn’t a virtuoso, but I wasn’t last chair. I do miss the elation of nailing complicated pieces, which were maybe 5% of my lifetime playlist. I’ve never regretted walking away from the monotony of dwelling among the second-string rabble cursed to play nothing but “BOMP. Bomp. BOMP. Bomp. BOMP. Bomp. BOMP. Bomp.” It would be inaccurate to joke that my parts could’ve been replaced by a machine, because that would imply my parts were essential enough for music scientists to consider them worth replacing.

The experience taught me a lot about music-making firsthand, about the importance of dedicated practice sessions, about sheet-music literacy basics, about inequality between instruments, and about my apparent unsuitability to this career track. I haven’t held a bass clarinet in twenty-seven years, but some of the old songs and the vocabulary still bounce around my head and resurface on occasion.

A lot of the lessons that I’d forgotten since then, Whiplash brought vividly back to mind.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Miles Teller, the new Mr. Fantastic, is Andrew Neiman, a dreamer intent on becoming the Greatest Jazz Drummer of All Time, which requires him to listen to lots of Buddy Rich and attend the Greatest Jazz School of All Time, where he finds himself lured into the studio of Terence Fletcher (imminent Academy Award honoree J.K. Simmons), who fancies himself the Greatest Jazz Teacher of All Time because his cruel methods get results, because to him that’s the point of music for some reason. If his perfectionist tantrums and Full Metal Jacket volume-11 drillings make students cry, crush dreams, destroy self-esteem, leave psychological scars, and send his victims fleeing out the front door, that collateral damage isn’t his problem. It serves the mediocre right for trying to rise above their station without having enough talent to carry them.

The film was inspired by the experiences of writer/director Damien Chazelle, who tried his hand at jazz drumming in high school, ran afoul of a Fletcher-esque conductor, and came to a conclusion pretty similar to mine, albeit from a different direction. We each decided we had better things to do.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Andrew’s dad is TV’s Paul Reiser. When Andrew takes time away from music to be nice to a young lady, she’s Melissa Benoist, the star of CBS’ proposed Supergirl pilot.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Fletcher’s over-the-top macho tactics make all the trailers, but Andrew’s not exactly a mild-mannered hero drummer in this conflict. Like many a young male, his priorities aren’t fully informed and there’s a reason he doesn’t immediately quit jazz boot camp and leave Whiplash truncated as a twenty-minute short film. Deep down, he and Fletcher are on the same page. Fletcher is decades ahead and inescapably toxic, but Andrew figures if that’s what it takes to achieve his jazz godhood goal, then that’s what he needs to do. Even if it means letting go of all other aspects of life, turning repugnant, treating the rest of the band like pawns, shutting out the one female character, and doing his best to out-Fletcher Fletcher, Andrew’s up for it. If the movie had first-person voiceover, Andrew would be quite the unreliable narrator.

At the point where the movie should end at the most obvious point of self-destruction, it keeps going beyond the school walls and into one last gladiatorial test of wills, mano-a-mano, drumsticks versus baton, culminating in what Andrew knows in his heart will be the Greatest Movie Drum Solo of All Time. And then his next drum concert will be even better! At some point his quest stops being about music and becomes all about victory, and maybe even revenge.

Lots of questions are begged and left for us to answer for ourselves. How important is it to be the best? What’s the point of being the best if you’re the only one who cares? Or worse, if the only other person who cares is more unstable than you are? Also, is there a point to being a musician while consciously refusing to have any fun at it?

Nitpicking? I’m not sure which would be more disturbing to sensitive viewers: Fletcher’s profane, overwhelming, in-your-face tirades, or the blood that flows from Andrew’s hands and across his drum kit whenever his obsession pushes him too far.

Jazz supporters may be interested in Richard Brody’s New Yorker review. Brody has distinct jazz opinions and takes issue with the movie’s version of the genre on a number of levels, including but not limited to its celebration of Buddy Rich as a certified legend. (I mostly know Rich from the one time he hosted The Muppet Show, which in itself may prove one of Brody’s points.) In spots I think he crosses the line between defending Serious Jazz and acting as a sort of jazz gatekeeper (sorry, Andrew — you’ve been outed as a Fake Jazz Guy!), and I’d question the umbrage taken at the parts of the film that were drawn directly from Chazelle’s personal experience. Regardless, I learned several new things from Brody’s informed perspective.

Least believable moment: a scene where it’s crucial for Andrew to rent a car without a reservation in mere minutes. Good luck finding a reputable place that’ll accommodate a damaged, unstable 19-year-old under duress.

So did I like it or not? My experience with our two junior-high conductors doesn’t compare to Fletcher on any level. Everyone’s favorite band teacher was one of the funniest men on staff. The other was a kind, older man with narcolepsy. Sometimes we had to repeat measures over and over and over, but not for several hours straight into the middle of the night, as Andrew and two other captives are impelled to on one of the most uncomfortable days. I’m grateful I got off light.

But I’ve had Fletchers at other times in my life, and Lord knows I’ve had my moments of Andrew. I recognize that feeling of self-improvement for the sake of self-improvement, when personal betterment becomes less a good idea and more an abstract idol that preoccupies the mind and occludes anything that doesn’t directly contribute to the path to awesomeness. Chazelle has taken that kind of compulsive drive, reframed it in the context of a high-stakes angry-dudes sparring match, a Rocky movie with fewer wounds, where the music is an overwhelming uproar turned into a battlefield. Simmons is the more intense of the two, commanding fear in an instant with the repeated, innocuous phrase, “That’s not my tempo.” After some early scenes of flustered cowering, Teller finds ways to hold his own while the woman stays on the sidelines and even the music itself sometimes gets in the way. By the end, neither combatant truly cares if the audience likes what they’re hearing.

Whiplash is a riveting, catchy, scary cautionary tale for anyone prone to going overboard in life. If practicing sixteen hours a day on your life’s purpose brings you greater fulfillment, that can be cool and that’s your call to make, but when you let it turn you an inhuman destroyer of worlds, no one will care what good you’ve done. I suggest reconsidering your life and maybe signing up for some quiet, peaceful art classes instead.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Whiplash end credits, just lots and lots of extra drumming. Combine this with the Birdman end credits and create your very own Oscar-jazz mixtape.

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About Randall A. Golden
Hoosier since birth, geek since age 6, father at 22, Christian at 30; launched Midlife Crisis Crossover at 39. Full-time service rep; part-time internet contributor; former message board admin; inhabits Twitter as @RandallGolden. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of any other corporation, being, or party line.

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