Film Review: Whiplash
Starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.
Directed by Damien Chazelle.
Sony Pictures (2014).
On general release.
Warning: This film has a strong component of jazz (and jazz education) in the story line.
Whiplash has had rave reviews from the regular critics and been popular with audiences. (It received a score of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 234 reviews.) But many jazz reviewers, musicians and fans have reacted quite negatively. So what’s going on?
The story in this film was apparently based on the real life experiences of writer- director Damien Chazelle, who had played in a “very competitive” jazz band while at high school. Supposedly his school band instructor was the inspiration in the screenplay for the main character, Terence Fletcher (played by J K Simmons), directing a big band at a fictitious American Music Conservatory. His classroom style is that of a demonic bully who deploys verbal, physical & psychological abuse of his students instead of more liberal and enlightened educational methods.
However it isn’t hard to see why the film has gone down well with cinema audiences. It is a compelling drama and a psychologically intense story with strong direction by Chazelle and engaging performances by the two main actors J K Simmons (Fletcher) & Miles Teller who plays a 19-year old student drummer, Andrew Neimann. Fletcher selects Neimann to play in his band as he thinks he may have “what it takes” to be a great drummer. But the methods he deploys in “developing” any talent involve aggressive insults (with a heavy use of sexual, homophobic and misogynistic verbal language) as well as physical abuse such as slapping Neimann’s face repeatedly to indicate a tempo. (Whatever happened to the metronome?). Neimann for his part has to go through massive pain and spill blood (literally) in order to develop his technique. We are invited to believe all this is necessary as the only true path to greatness. Charlie Parker, we are reminded, only became great after Jo Jones threw a cymbal at him; only then did he realise he needed to practise. The old school of hard knocks is the only one that works! The rest just produces mediocrity. Fletcher’s approach is vindicated: every budding prodigy needs an incredibly abusive mentor to set them on their way.
Well as a jazz musician who has spent a lot of my life teaching jazz I have to say this I find this idea absurd, and it has no place in modern education. I have had some very great students and I didn’t feel inclined to smack ‘em round the head as encouragement. Indeed I would expect to have been in serious trouble had I done so. Corporal punishment along with the piano teacher’s rap of the ruler across the knuckles has rightly been outlawed. Stern words may have their place where a student is wasting their talent, but insults are not appropriate. Furthermore, not all students pursue music because they want to be the next Bird, Wolfgang or Lennon; in fact very few have that goal in mind. If we all did, it would cause a lot of disappointment. And this narrative goes beyond jazz education to education in general.
However, I’m going to stop there because in relation to the film Whiplash I think I could end up taking myself too seriously and I think jazz musicians and critics probably have got a bit too serious over it. I’m sure most audiences are perfectly aware that this central thesis is dubious but that it is being utilised for a dynamic bit of drama. And I don’t think cinema goers will come away thinking all jazz people are fucked up in the way they seem to be in Whiplash, at least I hope not. They might even enjoy some of the music and although it wasn’t top jazz I really enjoyed the arrangement of Duke Ellington’s Caravan at the end of the film. It is also notable that both Whiplash and the recent film Birdman have featured jazz drumming so prominently- so finally the drum solo seems to have found an audience.
This review appeared in the February 2015 issue of Sussex Jazz Magazine, available here.