Saturday, February 1, 2020

My Thoughts on the Movie Whiplash

I know that most people would say that a blog about a movie that came out in 2014 is way past its time but this is not a movie review. I am writing this because for some reason I have heard the same question from several people the last few weeks and that is: What did you think of the movie Whiplash?

I have been most surprised by this question as this film's day seemed to have come and gone but I guess a lot of my peers are like me these days in that they get to see a film when they actually have time to sit down and watch it and for many of us it can takes years. I am just as guilty of this as my busy schedule prevents me from seeing most films while they are in theater.

The same thing happened when Whiplash came out. I did not see it in the theater but many people who knew that I was a drummer encouraged me to see the film. So one day I had a Best Buy gift card that someone gave me for my birthday so while I was there I bought a Blue Ray copy of the movie and watched it the moment I got home. As a film it is very interesting and there is a lot of great acting so kudos to performers. Still, I know that most people want to know more than what I thought of the film. They want to know what I think of the whole relationship between Andrew Neiman and Professor Terence Fletcher. Knowing that I studied music for a while in college they also want to know if I dealt with any teachers like Fletcher. So, here we go but let me warn you right now that I'm going to be very honest about a number of things.

First off, while I would never discourage someone to go for their dreams I think Neiman is foolish to pursue jazz studies. In most towns there is no or very little work for jazz musicians and this I know because I have my own instrumental trio and it does not work nearly as much as my country band. This is one of the reasons why I find it interesting that there is still so much emphasis on jazz studies in music schools when in the real music world, which is struggling on so many levels, is certainly not flourishing with jazz musicians. In fact, most of my college classmates who finished their musical studies are either teaching or moved on to another career. If they are performing I can assure you that they are not playing jazz on a full time basis. So I look at Neiman and think, Wow, kid. You're going to this prestigious music school (I don't recall if he was there on a scholarship) and racking up this huge loan that you're going to have to pay back with tip money as your performing jazz groups will get replaced by DJ's and Karaoke machines that bring in many more patrons than a combo of musicians, who I hate to say, are usually in a grouchy mood. I know it sounds cruel but in the world of business it is about the bottom line. Again, go for it if jazz is your thing but trust me when I say that most of us have had enough of the number of bitter jazz musicians who are out there complaining that there is no work.

Second, Fletcher and I would have never gotten as far as he did with Neiman during the first rehearsal. The whole not quite my tempo was nonsense. They never got far enough for anyone in the room to know if Neiman was rushing  or dragging so this scene was all about Fletcher busting his chops. With me, he would not have gotten further than not quite my tempo. I would have handed him my sticks and said, Why don't you show me the perfect performance? The moment he threw the chair at me I would have been on my feet and demanded he apologize before I throw the chair back at him. That means he would have never gotten as far as the verbal attacks or the slapping because if he would have tried to justify his actions and/or raised his voice at me for not putting up with his nonsense then he would have seen some of my Carson, CA roots to say the least.

As a side note, I never had a teacher like Fletcher but I did have a jazz band teacher at El Camino Community College (my friends know who I am talking about) who certainly had his moments. He never spoke with the same choice words or even with the same volume as Fletcher because he actually had some class. But, he knew how to say just enough to get under your skin. I put up with it because performing in an ensemble was a requirement to be in what was called the Applied Music program and with my work schedule I didn't have a whole lot of options to work with. If it wasn't for that I would have walked out of class probably within the second week of class and never returned.

The rest of the movie is basically more of Fletcher ridiculing both Neiman and many other students and from what I can see it's again, to get his rocks off. Take this scene where he is doing nothing more than berating the drummers. First off, he stops them as they get through one measure of an up tempo song. Then he continues to degrade them for not being able to play fast enough. I find this amusing because the piece they are trying to keep up with is supposed to be musical but all I hear, when Fletcher let's us get beyond a measure, is just a choppy piece that is meant to show how fast some jazz musicians can play. To the musical snobs out there, this type of song is somehow music but the your crazy blast beat driven devil metal song is not.. I disagree because it takes both talent and commitment to play at a very fast tempo regardless of the musical genre.

Again, I see it all of what Fletcher did as nothing more than a power trip more but Fletcher's rationale is that he was trying to push his students in order to produce the next Charlie Parker. That's when he tells the story of Philly Joe Jones throwing a cymbal at Charlie Parker when he was not cutting it only to have this defining moment push Charlie Parker to do better. When Neiman questions such a method and how it could in fact go too far Fletcher stated that such behavior would not break the next Charlie Parker. (start at: 1:06).

The problem for the ego maniacal Fletcher is that not every student is going to be the next Charlie Parker. In fact, he may never have any student that comes close to being the next Charlie Parker and yet those who would in fact break after being exposed to his vicious methods were also his responsibility so it is foolish for him to try to put them all in his experimental box . He also forgets that such artists and athletes for that matter may have a defining moment that moves them but it is almost certain that they have that special drive to begin with.

Take the story of Michael Jordan being cut from his varsity high school basketball team during his sophomore year. He wanted to make the team really bad so he was already driven to succeed. Yes, every athlete fails from time to time and all you can do is move on and keep trying to get better. I mean, do we really think that this high school moment was really Jordan's defining moment or was it those first seven years of his professional career when he could not win a championship until the Chicago Bulls organization surrounded him with great players including two Hall of Fame players that were also in the starting lineup during his last three championship years?

Jordan had the drive not to quit and this was most apparent when the famous Bad Boy Detroit Pistons were literally beating him and his team up during their epic playoff match ups. I am more than certain that Jordan wasn't thinking about his high school failure at the time he was trying to get past the Pistons.  His frustration of not being a winner at the highest level drove him to improve his game and to build up his body in order to handle all that the Pistons were giving to him. Once he along with his teammates figured out the Pistons they sent them packing once and for all with Jordan even admitting that if the Pistons had not done this to his team that they probably would not have had the run they had. Still, that is the Chicago Bulls team, not Michael Jordan the famous basketball player because even before the Bulls had won their first title people were already looking at Jordan as possibly being the greatest player of all time. Sounds to me like he already had the drive to be the best because he was known to be the hardest worker on his team both during the game as well as in practice before he finally became a champion.

Finally, people ask me about the drumming in the film, specifically the parts when Neiman is bleeding from all of his practicing. I am not going to get too into that because to me that's just Hollywood being dramatic. Do some drummers mess up their hands and at times bleed from all of that practice? Sure, especially when they are as tense and out of control as Neiman is during the film but I don't expect a movie to give me a proper display of what it's like to be a great drummer that is working towards being the best he can be.

In the same way that I don't think in today's safe space college environment that a teacher like Fletcher would have a job for even a week if he spoke to and acted in such a way towards his students.  In this case I would be on the side of the students because a school is not only a place to learn but a place for them to fall on their face and make mistakes in order to get ready for the real world. The teacher's job is to tell them what to expect, not to administer the abuse themselves. That's why you're a teacher and not a tyrant.

Fletcher had absolutely no understanding of that. That is why I say to people, if you like the typical 21st century smack talking fest that entertains the audience at the expense of a vulnerable character then go for it. Watch the movie. For me, well let's just say that it took two viewings for me to decide it needed to be traded in to my local used record store for something a whole lot better. It's just not worth my time on so many levels because it's...not quite my movie. 

Carlos Solorzano

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