Saturday, October 11, 2014

The price of right: 'Whiplash,' a jazzless jazz movie

When a more or less mainstream movie comes out about a topic you specialize in, you take notice. You almost feel compelled to form an immediate opinion, because you know someone will ask: "Have you seen this new film about a jazz drummer? What did you think?!"

The movie I'm talking about is, of course, Whiplash, which deals with a sadistic—or is he enlightened?—jazz-band director at a Juilliard-like NYC music school and his super-driven student, possibly also on his way to a life of cold inhumanity and artistic immortality.

I should say up front that I found Whiplash really compelling as a straightforward human story. The acting was solid all-around, and the transformation of the main character, Andrew (Miles Teller), into a kind of Art Monster felt believable and suitably complex, i.e., you weren't sure whether to admire him or pity him as he drove himself ever harder, past blisters and bleeding and beration at the hands of his teacher, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, a.k.a. that dude who's in everything but whom you probably don't know by name).

This question of how far you need to go—or maybe, how inhuman you need to become—in order to be great is one worth asking, and Whiplash thrusts it in your face for pretty much its entire running time. But what I found almost more interesting were the questions it didn't ask. Whiplash ostensibly concerns itself with jazz, with drumming, with music in general, but to me, it felt strangely divorced from any of those things. What I mean is that Andrew's entire quest is presented as no different from that of, say, a marathon runner or mountain climber. The drumming in the film is entirely tense, joyless, athletic, extreme, punishing. We hear music being played in Whiplash, but mostly we see and hear practice, and practice that looks and feels very much like self-flagellation.

Director Damien Chazelle apparently played in high-school jazz band, so I guess I should assume that in addition to posing his core inquiry of "At what price art?," he's also asking questions about the sort of militaristic regimentation of jazz during the past few decades. But this seemed sort of like an undercurrent rather than anything the movie came right out and addressed. I couldn't help noticing that there were really only two actual musical fixations in the film, two hallowed icons held up as examples of the greatness that Andrew is trying to achieve and Fletcher is trying to inspire: Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker. I could be mistaken, but I don't think a single other drummer was named in the film besides Rich. That makes perfect sense, in a way, because to me—respectfully, Buddy Rich has no place in my personal drum pantheon, jazz or otherwise, but to be fair, I haven't dug very deep into his work—Buddy Rich is the icon of jazz as sport, jazz as "My band is going to wipe the floor with your band," jazz as a chops war, jazz (or music in general) as a thing not to be studied, enjoyed, savored, but as a battle with clear winners and losers. Is this why Chazelle chose Rich—i.e., as a sly critique of those who would model themselves after the wrong kinds of artistic heroes—or was it simply that he, as a young jazz hopeful, worshiped at Rich's altar? Or that Rich is simply the go-to shorthand idol of "every aspiring jazz drummer"? (Another thing: Like Rich, almost everyone shown playing jazz in Whiplash is white. Again, I wonder: critique, commentary or coincidence?)

In terms of Parker, there's not a single mention of the fact that he was, like, a brilliant alto saxophonist and improviser. All we hear about is that he was an inferior player who became an immortal one after—in the famous story, recounted ad nauseum in the film and elsewhere—drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at him during a jam session. (I've heard this anecdote so many times that I can't even remember where the supposedly definitive version comes from—does anyone else happen to recall?) In any case, I thought it was very telling that there's not a single mention of, or even allusion to, the idea of improvisation in the film. Andrew's entire quest revolves around mastery: mastering rudiments, mastering certain tempos and feels (all the while being verbally and physically assaulted, both by Fletcher himself and by his own ever-developing inner Fletcher), mastering charts, mastering a sort of samurai-like ascetic discipline. The idea of inspiration, of expression, of putting one's personal stamp on the music never comes up. Jazz as it's portrayed in Whiplash is about rigor and bombast, mostly in an ensemble context, and that's it. And it was hard for me to tell if Chazelle intended his movie as a critique of this ghoulish perversion of jazz in the academy, or if that version of jazz—the one where jazz looks very much like, say, wrestling or football or rugby—was the only one he knew, and was therefore the only one his film dealt with. I'm splitting hairs here, but I came away from Whiplash wondering all this.

Chazelle leaves it up to the audience to decide whether Andrew's quest, the one that will very likely result in him become a famous drummer with no personal relationships whatsoever, is worthwhile, or even fated for someone of his constitution. But I couldn't tell if were also meant to be asking whether "succeeding" at this version of art—i.e., not the version where you change the world through the depth and specificity of your vision, i.e., the Miles, Mingus, Ellington and, yes, Parker version, but the one where you basically become a charts-obliterating robot—was even a worthwhile goal to begin with. Is Whiplash simply a film, in other words, about the price of getting jazz right, or is it also a film about how profoundly the jazz-education system—teachers, students, everybody who embraces this apparatus for the learning/inculcation of jazz—has gotten jazz wrong? Because, yes, relentless practice is what turned Charlie Parker into Bird, but it wasn't the relentless practice of, like, the saxophonic equivalent of rudiments and snazzy ’70s-style big-band charts. It was mechanical study combined with the drive to make a personal statement, with actual passion and curiosity, a concept that is not even remotely touched on in Whiplash (again, a calculated omission? Hard to say…). Passion not just to "improve" but to discover.

So Whiplash definitely made me think—just maybe not along the exact lines it seemed to be trying to make me think. But as a visual, visceral and emotional document, I thought it was extremely successful. Jazz, music and drumming aside, it's basically about the idea of a young man pushing past his breaking point and going into a kind of transcendent/purgatorial free fall, a portrait of what the obliteration of "normalcy" in the name of excellence looks and feels like. (My friend and Time Out colleague Josh Rothkopf nailed all this in his Whiplash review.) Chazelle really rubs your nose in the madness of it all—the rehearsal scenes in particular, with Fletcher halting performances time and time and time again with a bulging bicep and clenched fist, are suitably excruciating. And the film's dark pull really centers on how much you find yourself agreeing with Fletcher's worldview at times. This idea of "Is the desire for greatness unreasonably extreme, or is the rest of the humanity too content to settle?" is a profound one, whatever your chosen field or life path.

Yes, the "jazz" in the film looked and sounded nothing like the jazz I love, but then again, I've never studied jazz at a conservatory. (I'd be really curious to hear how someone from that environment would respond to Whiplash.) Bottom line: a good, thought-provoking night out at the movies, and a rare chance to see a feature film that touches on some of my chief obsessions.

P.S. Forrest Wickman goes deeper into the cymbal-throwing incident (myth?) and its relationship to Whiplash here.


Anonymous said...

[Spoiler alert]
I appreciate this thoughtful essay, which I discovered and read about an hour after seeing the film. One comment I'd make is that I did see one moment of improvisation that in fact was vitally important, at the end of the impromptu rendition of "Caravan" (and the end of the film). In the context of your essay I think that Andrew, having returned to the drums and played through Caravan as he did, has finally succeeded in transcending Fletcher and the regimentalism he stands for. Andrew now is flying free. In this sense, that solo is the exception that proves your point about the film's limited perspective on jazz performance.

Interestingly, in the absolutely final moment of the film Andrew ends the solo on a cue from Fletcher (along with a big note from the rest of the band). I read elsewhere Mr. Chazelle's own claim that his objective was to depict the ultimate return to an unhealthy relationship. That idea certainly is clinched as Fletcher's hand ends the song and the film. (If I hadn't done all this reading after seeing the movie, I was inclined to construct the ending not as Mr. Chazelle intended but as a triumph for Andrew over Fletcher, and to imagine that in the future Andrew would leave Fletcher in the dust and be glad about it.)

Anonymous said...

" was hard for me to tell if Chazelle intended his movie as a critique of this ghoulish perversion of jazz in the academy, or if that version of jazz...was the only one he knew, and was therefore the only one his film dealt with."

I'm gonna have to chime in and say it is the former. If Andrew walked into the conservatory with a sense of self-efficacy and a directive towards where HE wanted to go with his art, and not where other people wanted him to go, he wouldn't be having his conflict. Fletcher is seen in the jazz club playing a limp-dick bossa, that this is what the Great's vision amounts to. Fletcher and Andrew both share a fixation on Charlie Parker and Buddy Rich, when people who exhibit brilliance I've known tend towards aggressively broadening their horizons. The movie is about how a sort of cognitive incest can trap a person in the ivory tower.

The film is sprinkled with all sorts of subtle jokes that would surely resonate with people who appreciate jazz. For example, early in the film, Fletcher sends a horn player on his way for not knowing if he was playing out of tune, while the actual culprate looks suspiciously like Kenny G ;^). Maybe you don't think that's intentional, but I for one believe the movie's more self-aware of its quirks than the jazz blogosphere's been giving it credit, as far as I can tell.

Thomas Watson said...

That ending was truly breathtaking. Whiplash should have been in more theaters for sure. :)