Thursday, February 26, 2015


I finally got around to seeing the film Whiplash recently and I walked away with very mixed feelings. This American drama, released late 2014, was both written and directed by Damien Chazelle about his first hand experiences in the Princeton High School Studio Band. This film stars Miles Teller as  a first year jazz student named Andrew Neiman and J.K. Simmons as an abusive jazz conductor named Terence Fletcher. This film follows Miles Teller's character as he strives to obtain the first chair drummer position in the school jazz band, all the while struggling under the hellish torment of J.K. Simmons' character.

Firstly, I want to address the positive traits of this film. Whiplash won three academy awards for Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing and Best Supporting Actor. All three of these awards I think the film rightly won. I truly feel that J.K. Simmons' performance was more than oscar worthy, given that much of the intensity and mood of the film comes largely his presence. The pacing of this movie was expertly done, and I think the oscar for editing reflects this. The film never loses intensity, only building it through tight and intelligent editing. Overall, the technical aspects were well done and on the surface the movie definitely "looks" good. It's an aesthetically pleasing film, especially in the musical scenes, where the director and his DP shoot the instruments in such glistening closeups that it resembles soft-core pornography. However, the positive elements of the film dissipate when you look beyond the superficial aesthetic aspects.

I had a hard time figuring out what my problem with this film was. When I look at its surface I saw a film that was well made, had a good story and was aesthetically beautiful; however, there was something deeper about this film that I really disliked. I decided to discuss this film with a friend of mine who has spent the majority of his life studying jazz history and drumming in many jazz groups. This person, who wished to remain anonymous, is also a film major at Ithaca College. We watched the movie and discussed it in depth for a long time. The following quote is a filtered and approved version of what we discussed:

"Everything from the film's poster, to the tagline, to the entire plot screams that this film is about music; however, nothing could be further from the truth. The film might as well have been about a college football player being abused by his sociopathic coach and the only difference would be him wearing a football jersey instead of a tuxedo. The film lacks all of the heart and soul of the music it is so poorly depicting. Jazz music is about joy, collaboration, experimentation, and passion, with its roots coming from the struggle and desperation of the slaves our country so cruelly abused. It comes from their hearts, and their sense of community to keep their culture alive amidst an era of slavery and racism. It is a purely American music, and both it's personality and rich culture are reflected in the masters who evolved and perfected it. Names like Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Jo Jones, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Elvin Jones, John Coltrane: these were people who lived the music, whose soul resonated with the very music they played. Their mastery came from their passion and dedication to making the best music they could, to transcending the physical divisions between the players in their band and creating a unified sound. This is jazz. And this is where the film's main problem dawns. The characters in the film--apparently talented musicians--are constantly referring to being the best, yet they are shallow and superficial. They are looking for the quickest way to make it to the top without any true passion for the music, and the film glorifies this. Playing as fast as you can isn't skill--it's showboating. True musicianship doesn't come from hitting the drums like frenzied buffoon, yet the film--through long practice montages and sequences where JK Simmons yells for him to play "FASTER!!"--has no idea about this. It rewards Miles Teller's shallow pursuit of greatness with a climactic drum solo that captures everything about his character. The solo lacks any kind of musicianship, any kind of dynamic or melodic appeal. It is merely an orgy of classless, wild banging on the drums. And this issue is no better in JK Simmons' character. Although he professes to be a lone visionary amidst a sea of mediocrity, he is no better than the blinded Miles Teller. His cutthroat attitude is both completely inaccurate, but also against the very spirit of the music he claims to love. If any professor at that level of musical education slapped a student, called a student a faggot, or thrown a chair at a student's head, they would have been thrown out on their ass. Musical education is about inspiring students to embrace the collaboration and joy of jazz--not scaring them away from it. Yes, artistry demands a rigor and drive, but his character is blown completely out of proportion. There is no love for the music in his character, merely a love of power."
-From the perspective of an anonymous Jazz musician and film major here at Ithaca College

Having this great discussion with my friend I realized a lot about my underlying problem with this film. This film has a lack of soul. As a result, its portrayal of jazz music is a horribly superficial and inaccurate one. It is about cheap wannabe's looking for an easy way to the top. A familiar story set in an environment the filmmakers did not take the time to deliver justice to. They sacrifice the genuine for the dramatic, and while it does make for a thrilling movie, once the credits roll the viewer is left feeling confused about what they have just seen.

Overall, I think this is a good movie. It is well produced, directed and acted; however, I do feel the film lacks a connection to the soulful jazz music it is trying to depict. I think everyone should give this movie a chance, but be aware of the context of the film in relation to the music industry.

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