One of the most interesting experiences I’ve had in my career as a musician was in 2008. It was a cold February morning, I was in the control room of a recording studio on the lot of the Studio Babelsberg, an hour away from Berlin. I sat in a quiet corner watching a piece that I had written being prepped for recording by the German Film Orchestra Babelsberg. That I was there at all was fascinating enough but watching the dynamics of a conductor interacting with the orchestra was beyond surreal. A little while in, I noticed the German TV crew that was filming the process kind of laugh under their breaths – like they weren’t really supposed to but couldn’t help themselves. The orchestra director was an imposing older gentleman and it seemed like his instructions to the musicians were the source of the amusement. He spoke only in German which I don’t speak, so I asked one of the girls what he was saying. She translated: “We usually tune the instruments before we start playing,” and, “how about we try playing together next time?” You get the idea. This went on for a while and then things settled down, the piece was recorded, all was well. Later, some of the crew explained to me that the director was a bit sharp-tongued but he got the job done. No kidding. After a shaky start, which could have been for so many reasons – it was really early in the morning, the musicians weren’t too familiar with my piece, my composition was not a traditional arrangement – it all came together and everyone was happy. It was a little sharp but it was in the spirit of things. You mess up, you’re going to get told off — often sarcastically. Nothing wrong with that. This was my understanding of how a tough taskmaster got musicians to toe the line.
And then I watched Whiplash. I had been really really excited to do so. First, because of Miles Teller who I think is an absolutely electric performer. He just owns the part no matter how big or small it is. Second, it was a film set in the world of music, which I love. The movie sets up the central relationship in the first scene itself. Teller’s Andrew Neiman is going hard at the drums in a practice room. He’s giving it all he’s got, trying to get them to do what he wants. He gets there, it slips from his grasp, he gets there again. It’s a tough dance but he’s in there. The door opens, the music teacher walks in and gives him the first taste of what will be a series of bitter pill experiences. JK Simmons’s band leader/music teacher/conductor Terence Fletcher is not impressed, not amused and not in the mood for anything other than his idea of perfection. His tool kit for getting the musicians to achieve this perfection consists of the sharpest tools in the house – sarcasm, insults, humiliation and taunts. When those don’t work, he’s not averse to a little blunt force trauma that may result from hurling objects at people’s heads. All in the service of music and greatness.
I am probably in a minority here, but I don’t get it. His reasoning – and I paraphrase here – involves something about Charlie Parker becoming Bird after someone threw a cymbal at his head, which then motivated him to excel. So all Fletcher does is keep hurling a steady stream of hurtful words and physical objects at his students, ostensibly to push them beyond themselves towards excellence. That seems really really reductive to me. Finding causation where there may or may not be some. I don’t see any encouragement, any actual teaching of skills. Just a constant barrage of all caps “GET GOOD AT THIS YOU PIECE OF SHIT” or some such. It gets kind of one note [pun sort of intended] very quickly.
Final Analysis: Music took a real backseat in Whiplash and that is a problem for a movie whose thesis statement seems to be: music is the only thing that matters in its world. JK Simmons is winning awards and garnering immense praise for his role and good for him. He’s a really good actor who deserves the acclaim. I just deeply disagree with his character and the portrayal of this character as inspiring in some way. After a while, all the yelling and screaming and rage just felt predictable. It was like, “Oh great, he’s going to get mad again”. It lost its effectiveness very quickly.
Miles Teller sank his teeth into his part and was absolutely riveting as the unstoppable young drummer who wants to succeed at all costs. He proves once again that he is one of the finest actors of this generation.
Props to this small indie for making noise and capturing people’s attention in what has been a very good year at the movies—if you’re not in the blockbuster business.
My advice: Watch it, see how you feel, and let me know your thoughts in the comments below.