Thursday, 15 January 2015

Whiplash From The Perspective Of A High School Jazz Band Member

When you're going to music class, there's always two choices. Either you go to the choir, or you go to band class. At my school, it seemed like an easy choice to go with the latter. Not that I wasn't a singer but I just didn't like the way it was conducted. Plus, I wanted to try something new. At first it wasn't anything special, but once we started getting more into the nitty-gritty and I moved to jazz band/ensemble, I started to get more of an interest in playing. I started to listen attentively and appreciatively at musicians like Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Glenn Miller, Wynton Marsellis, Benny Goodman, Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, John Coltrane, Oscar Peterson, and of course, Miles Davis. I managed to pull of some good solos and I always loved it when the sound had the rich flow of melted butter. I suppose that had a lot to do with my teacher, who played the trumpet (which coincidentally was my instrument of choice). He made the class fun for us while still keeping us focused. He was as much of a jokester as he was a professional, since he turned an apathetic group of middle/high school kids into competent players. There's always that cliche of the parent attending their kid's band performance only to patronize the group, but I never seem to have gotten that being with my band teacher. Faculty, parents and students know how much effort and dedication he puts and we do our best to show it.

Unfortunately, I had to abandon it in senior year because I had other courses that I needed to be on top of for university. I had to return my rented trumpet back to the music store but I would have liked to have one of my own and continue to mess around with the sound and play a few pieces too. Even if I wouldn't become great at it, at the very least I could say that I can play one instrument with some level of competence. Christmas managed to grant me that wish and New Year's Day gave me the bonus of watching Whiplash, a movie that combined jazz, J.K Simmons and drama into Oscar buzz. I went to see it with my family and we had a very interesting conversation afterwards about it. We also managed to look up a few things here and there in regards to the movie, and one that struck to me was this negative review by Richard Brody. At first, I felt like this was just another pompous New Yorker piece (Buddy Rich clearly must be a good drummer if Wikipedia says so, you old jerk!), but then I gave it a less biased read and realized that he was looking at from the eye of a jazz music aficionado. His gripes didn't have the vibe of Armond White's contrarianism, more like Neil DeGrasse Tyson's points of scientific accuracy but with less kindness. Perhaps I don't agree completely with Mr. Brody, but I certainly respect his angle and I figure I'd try to mix in my amateurish jazz performance history with my affinity for film and drama in looking over the film.

Whiplash was made by Damien Chazelle, a French-American who enjoyed music but knew he wasn't going to be the next big thing, which made him go for filmmaking instead. He wrote the script for Grand Piano, another music-related drama film and would go about writing this story about a jazz drummer with an intense teacher, which was a very personal piece for him. That piece would then go evolve into a short film that then the feature film became. As stated before, the film has become such a hot topic that it is said that J.K Simmons is considered for an Academy Award. He plays as Terrence Fletcher, the maltempered maestro who shapes up Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) into becoming a better jazz drummer...that is until their relationship gets more maddening. Now, you might think that to be a bit redundant of me to say that but the film revolves heavily around these two characters. There are other characters that work themselves into the story but they are incredibly overshadowed, which, to be fair, doesn't really hurt the movie. 

It's worth pointing out that the whole conflict being centered between a drummer and the conductor was a clever choice. The drummer can sometimes become the de facto leader of a jazz band if they're good enough at it because they keep the rhythm for everyone else. Drummers usually start the performance if the conductor leaves and if you ever need a cue, you can depend on the drummer to give you a hint. And much like a conductor, if they're terrible, it will show. There have been times where I've seen bands where the rest of the group is alright but the drummer is completely lost and it sounds as bad as hearing My Funny Valentine played as a military march. I'm not all too sure if people will be aware of it when they see it or are aware of that sort of effect, but to put it in a simpler way, just imagine someone singing an operetta while someone beatboxes in the background.

The conductor aspect of the film is also spot on. My teacher wasn't a madman, but he would pick out certain people and be harsher on them for the sake of improvement. He's not as cruel as Fletcher, but the underlying philosophy of "Good job" being a marker of complacency does resonate with musicians. It does have to do with timing and pitch, because subtleties are something that the conductor will pick up and call you out on. They can build up and screw up the performance, especially if it comes from rhythm section, hence why Fletcher chews out the drummers more than the others. Thankfully, my teacher never mentally scarred anyone but he wasn't above throwing his baton at people who got on his nerves. Though saying that the person getting the baton thrown at them didn't have it coming is about as false as saying that Parker got a cymbal thrown to the head by Jo Jones.

Now I won't necessarily fault the movie for that stretch of reality. Much like I don't roll my eyes every time the teacher does something that would clearly get his ass fired or how Andrew is capable of tackling Fletcher. That's a matter of suspension of disbelief. What I will say is that I do take issue to Andrew's attitude to some level. For the most part, I understand his ambitions and I think the dining room scene was great to show how serious he is about drumming and how the world just doesn't seem to be at his favor. There is sympathy towards this character considering the abuse he gets from the teacher. But Brody brought up this good point about how his distance and the environment itself doesn't accurate represent jazz ensembles, considering that there's a lot more teamwork and less hostility. Vouching for that claim doesn't necessarily mean that in a professional environment that people are as friendly, even if it is for a group effort. Still, that isn't much of an issue to the story more than how selfish Andrew is. It may be a reaction to his father's condescending attitude towards his passion or it might just be the obsession taking its toll, but the smugness made me feel like punching him, even if he kicked ass at drumming.

Then again, it does make him more interesting. If I met Andrew, I'd probably want to punch him if he talked down to me, but if I met Miles Teller, I'd shake his hand and congratulate him for his performance. Same for Nate Lang and his character. Andrew may have his moments of being a jerk, but it does work in the context of the story and he has a reason to be cocky. He is also anti-social and by god does that show. The drumming really is a feat of work and the cinematography did well to hide when it was Lang hitting the drums. Though that's not to say that Miles didn't put in the effort to be good enough so that we could be fooled. The other musicians are fine as far as I can tell. For all I know, the trumpeters could have just been randomly pressing down keys, I'd have to watch it again to be sure. There was a trombonist who really didn't have a clue how the instrument worked, the slide was going all over the place. It might not act like a proper jazz ensemble, but at least it sounds like it.

Probably one of the greatest things about Whiplash is that the name is able to take on various meanings throughout the film. One of the most obvious ones is that there's a piece called Whiplash, which sounds like a tune that might drive many high-school jazz band instructors insane to get it sounding tolerable, let alone this professional group. Then, we have it by the way Fletcher keeps persisting, to the point of exhaustion, madness and bloodshed, which leads to some of the most intense moments in the film as well as some of the greatest shots. The most important definition of course has to be the relationship between Andrew and Terrence and the two of them. I already explained how Andrew tends to have moments of shifting, but Terrence is far more manipulative. It is fascinating to see how two-faced this man is and it makes you wonder if he's a tough-love guy who gets tougher with the things he loves, or a monster with musical expertise. It can be shocking to see how fast he changes and it works so well to make their connection all the more tangled and intense, delivering one hell of a punch for the end.

My years of playing the horn might not mean a damn thing when held up to other critics of this film, but I can certainly side with those who don't side favorably to it.  For one, playing until you go mad doesn't make you play any better, so much as get worse. There's also the matter of there being very little conversation involving music theory. Granted, I'm no expert at it, but my teacher did more than just tell us when we're wrong. Plus,There is a lot more unity when it comes to bands, especially jazz since it's about sharing your perspectives, your path. It's a open forum to experiment and to let your mind run wild. Jazz is all about unfiltered thought, which this film actually is capable of embodying. It certainly might have it's bumps, but it doesn't stop and apologize, it carries on, much like a good jazz solo does. Still, it's goal isn't so much to perfectly mirror a jazz band environment. It's instead taking a different spin on the "prodigy" story-line. Andrew is as much of a immensely-skilled underdog as any, but instead of turning people around into lauding his wonderful skill or having his rise and fall be immense leaps, it's being under the boot of a mentor who will use his weakness against him and not care how hard he tried if it didn't amount to a good performance. Terrence does see something different in Andrew (as any other mentor character does), but he doesn't see it coming out by simply giving him a smile and a pat on the back. Rather, he sees it coming out by full-time dedication.

It's not that hard to detach yourself from whatever liberties this movie has in terms of getting the mood of the band environment, because we have all at least met one person who beats down on you hard but expects you to become better because of it (or makes you question their true motives). Part of the reason I didn't want to go with choir was because one of teachers was especially harsh on others. If not, we know someone who has been a victim of being pushed too hard but yet is capable of some incredible work. I at least know this because I went to a private school where if you did well enough in a strand, you got a pin on your lapel. Some of the folks had so many pins, they were practically generals. Their parents would get on them and they barely had time for anything else. Sometimes seeing Andrew talking to others reminds me a little of how others were. And in art, that's no different. The most relevant example is Lang Lang, who can play the piano incredibly fast but had an incredibly overbearing father. Hell, artists tend to be pretty hard on themselves and do some crazy things as they try to seek their best. Ultimately, the movie asks a very typical question: We all want to be great, but what is the cost of that greatness? To which I'm sure many who have seen it would response with not getting a chair thrown at them.

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