A Bad Case of Whiplash
OK, so I’m a little slow getting around to things in popular culture–for example, I stopped listening to new music thirty years ago–but I finally got around to seeing the movie Whiplash. I put it off awhile because, as a UNT grad, it sounded an awful lot like Orals, which is something that sounds fun but is anything but. Orals was not something I wished to repeat, even vicariously.
But so many people raved about this movie and demanded that I see it, that I finally had to give in. I’m just a people-pleasin’ kind of guy. Also, I was curious because many of my fellow musicians absolutely detested it. So I figured it must have something going for it, to inspire such extreme reactions.
OK, first off–it stars JK Simmons (him again?), who I have never been able to take seriously ever since I noted his physical resemblance to Mr. Kissler, who lived down the street from us in my old neighborhood. One memorable Fourth of July, Mr. Kissler stumbled drunk out onto his front lawn to shoot off a bottle rocket. After some fumbling, he did manage to ignite the fuse–but unfortunately, the firework’s trajectory took it directly up his pants leg. Hilarity ensued. But I digress.
Anyway, in Whiplash JK Simmons plays a demanding Svengali who dresses like Steve Jobs and runs his jazz program with an iron fist. One day he hears a young kid working the drums in a practice room, and decides: “Hey, this is a kid who is just talented enough to have his life ruined by me.”
So much for the setup.
When I see a movie that is centered around playing jazz in an academic setting–a big band, no less–part of me just wants to marvel that the thing was done at all. Who was asking for this picture? Apart from JK Simmons’ agent, I mean. So I didn’t get all nit-picky about what was off in the whole plot department. Which turned out to be a good approach, because there were Things Wrong A-Plenty. (Spoilers ahead. Duh).
First and Biggest Thing Wrong: DrumKid, flush with unaccustomed self-confidence after being drafted into the top band, asks out smokin’ hot babe from the movie concession stand that he frequents with his LoserDad. OK, that’s not a wrong thing. But then, a short while later, he breaks up with her because he doesn’t want her to stand in the way of his ‘progress’ as a player. Not that this had been an issue–he just decides it preemptively and unilaterally, and lays it on her at a diner.
DrumKid would rather sit in a practice room and pound drums until his hands bleed (literally) than go out with SuperBabe, even if she does have a Leno chin. (Hey, she said it, not me.) The screenplay seems to have missed the #1 reason young men go into music: To Get Laid. If any Trekkies are reading this, think of it as the Prime Directive. Hey, I don’t want to leave anyone behind.
It should be noted here that DrumKid idolizes super drummer Buddy Rich, although he is nothing like him in any way. DrumKid never stops practicing; Buddy Rich proclaimed that he never did. DrumKid is keeping himself chaste for his art; Buddy Rich–well, I didn’t know the man personally, but he married a showgirl and didn’t seem to behave particularly like a monk. And when it came to doormats, Buddy Rich was clearly the Stepper, whereas DrumKid…you know.
Wrong Thing #2: The only person singled out for JK’s consistent vitriol is DrumKid. Because big-band drummers who can read are so plentiful, he can afford to be abusive. Uh-huh.
Let me point out a little statistic here. The year I enrolled in the UNT Jazz Studies Dept., there were approximately seventy people enrolled on the drums. Know how many graduated with a degree? Five.
Now, arguably, the drum chair is the most crucial position in the big band. (Unless you are arguing with a lead trumpet player, in which case you had better block out several days.) Given that, if you find a decent drummer, the last thing you are going to do as bandleader is antagonize them. You sure as hell aren’t going to find three talented drummers to pit against one another in some sort of demented gladiator-like dance to the death, while you send the rest of the band out into the hall to mark time. Not if you wanted to resume some semblance of rehearsal before the next day.
Wrong Thing #3 is so egregious that it has been pointed out in many other reviews, so I’ll just dispense with it by saying: no bandleader is going to intentionally sabotage his own live performance and make the entire band look bad in order to get back at one person.
All this being said, there were some things the movie got right. Like a scene where DrumKid and LoserDad (played by Paul Reiser; nice to see him working again) are having dinner with jock cousins who don’t get the Whole Music Thing. They prefer the clear-cut arena of a football game, where points are scored and there is a definite winner and loser at the end of four quarters. Music, OTOH, is “subjective”.
DrumKid argues with them, bringing up the spectre of Charlie Parker, maybe not a wise choice in this assemblage. But I could certainly replay chunks of dialogue from this scene verbatim from my own experience, talking with my own relatives about what I do.
I was no DrumKid, of course. I wasn’t driven to be the best; I just wanted to study and make my contribution in an artform I valued. But to my brother, for instance, music was something you did to get famous. So why would anyone study jazz?
Maybe because it takes more than an afternoon to master, I suggested? But he didn’t get it.
At least we agreed on the Getting Laid part.