Whiplash: A Terrific Film I am Skeptical to Recommend.

~

*Mild Spoilers Ahead. Maybe.*

~

After having watched Whiplash twice, and contemplated relaxation a dozen times, I am writing this piece. I am not relaxed. No sir, I am not. This one little film, took me by my collar, and jolted me out of the lazy Saturday evenings like the devil spanking my brain. Yet, I just cannot look away from it. This one film, one little, mostly shot inside rooms, low key, low production value drama film which could well be on stage (actually, it can’t) has more excitement and pulse pounding thrill than, say, Godzilla.

Whiplash PosterWhen you are done watching this film, you will understand what an adrenaline rush means. You will understand what truly fleshed out characters mean. You will understand what a man means when he calls another man a dick, and how. You will understand how breathing, alive, and dangerous things we are, and how much damage we can cause each other, yet we are attracted to damage more than we are attracted to peace, because, well, damage needs fixing. Peace doesn’t.

Whiplash lives on people so honest to themselves that it becomes terrifying, as it progresses. As they say one act of defiance deserves another. And defiance leads to loss, which leads to vengeance. And, vengeance exists, between a teacher and a student, inside a music school’s practise room. Where that school’s premiere Jazz band practices. With precise instructions from an almost dictator like master who draws the rules, and asks his players to stick by them, ferociously.

He finds a kid, right in the beginning of the film, beating. A drum set. He challenges him, teases him, and lets him know he cares, and he cares a damn, and leaves the kid hanging. That’s how he, presumably, locates greatness, brings him along, and then thwarts the ego of the player, over and over and over again, with agony, with challenge, with devastation, and, in no small measure, abuse. He repeats a story of how Jo Jones led to Charlie “Bird” Parker’s success by throwing a cymbal at him and almost killing him (though I found out that this story is not true, but more about it later). He says he believes in how greatness can be achieved by forcing the artist towards it. By pushing them beyond what they think they are capable of.

And there lies my problem. As a film, I totally love it. It’s so intense in delivering a shattering experience that when it ends, you feel like you’ve been whipped and lashed. The movie beats hard like a percussion solo, and puts you through one hell of an experience. But, my dear friends…I have a problem. Not with the film craft, but with the subject of teaching, and imparting knowledge, and pursuing excellence; the stuff this film is all about. Be it of any kind. This one includes playing music. Especially because the movie depends on the relationship between a teacher and a student, and the role of a teacher in a student’s life.

I totally have a problem with how Terence Fletcher regards his band members. And that’s how, seemingly, it happens in a creative field, and, presumably, that’s how greatness is achieved. But, let’s go back to the Charlie Parker story Fletcher reiterates through the running time of the film. Charlie Parker, as it is said, was performing in a club. He got the groove but wasn’t serious about it. One evening, he just kept playing a mess of a melody while rest of the band stopped. Audience started laughing, and, as Fletcher says, drummer Jo Jones pulled the cymbal out of his drum set and hurled it at Parker who ducked to save himself from getting decapitated. Shocked, he realized audience was laughing at him, he wept through the night but the next day onwards he practised. And exactly a year later, in the same club, he pulled a miracle. Same audience had their jaws dropped at the saxophone genius he’d become.

Great story, *BUT*, it’s not true in its entirety. First of all, internet tells me Jo Jones didn’t hurl the cymbal at Parker, rather he simply dropped it on the floor to bring Parker back from the stupid dreamland of arrogance he was into. Secondly, from what I learnt about Parker, he didn’t simply practise a year for a one note performance ending up with a single melody. He studied. Collected himself, listened music, understood, developed, talked, met, and most of all, he studied. He learnt music, absorbed it, and instead of memorizing something his master would have expected, he developed a sense of music. Probably that’s why, during the climax of Whiplash, Neiman is unable to get even the basic beats right for a tune he wasn’t prepared for. Because…his master never developed music in him. He, like programming a robot, fed the pieces into his band, asked them to learn the notes, with minimal room for improvisation and development, perfected the “sound” of the piece. While, I must admit, the best of the music has mostly been a result of jamming.

Whiplash DVD CoverIn a strange, overbearing manner, there is no jamming in the film. None at all. The point of a percussion instrument is to understand melodies, not just one, to be able to support, and elevate music even if the players never synced before. Percussion in itself cannot be music. That’s the reality of being the dark horse of music production. But, no music is complete without it, and a drummer needs to understand the melody and bass it, which Neiman fails on. Because, well, his master didn’t let him develop the skill of improvisation.

Long ago, a teacher of mine told me that the point of a teacher is to show the direction. Not solve the problem, not impart his expertise upon the student, neither give the students a vehicle to reach his destination, but to point him in the right direction. And that’s it. Teacher needs to let his students figure out, which rarely happens in Whiplash. It’s always Fletcher’s piece instead of his band’s piece, and the tunes they play are classics, not even Fletcher’s own. He’s just a conductor. And that’s it. And because he’s a part of a music school his job is to elevate the students. Let them improvise instead of asking them to double up on the beats.

I know, I know, that all those principles would never a terrific movie make. And maybe I am seeing a little too much into the movies, but then, movies do influence me, and there is something I needed to get out. Moreover, it did remind me of Last Tango in Paris somehow. The story of 2 mad people drawn to each other due to some strange, common obsession. When one of them comes to terms with reality, disaster ensues.

But, for once, I declare, art (or any kind of learning, for that matter) is not about treading the lines, and following the rules. It’s about disrupting and breaking free. And teaching is all about enabling it. As someone who was forced to tread lines, learn music, and earn a certificate in it (Sangeet Visharad in Tabla, no less), only to end up not listening to music at all, and caring little about it today, I can say great art is not something that can be forcibly driven out of someone. And I can say that for a fact. There’s a reason why Terence Fletcher never found a Charlie Parker, something he laments. No teacher ever found a Charlie Parker. Charlie Parker found himself.

 

8 thoughts on “Whiplash: A Terrific Film I am Skeptical to Recommend.

  1. I had the same issues while watching the film and wondered if it can set a bad precedent or make the people who are less aggressive to be termed losers…Like a double edged sword…

    But as a movie it works and is furiosly paced… Simmons deserved a nod for the best actor and that would have been fun… Extremely well written…

    Like

    • I think he’s getting applauded (almost everywhere, and rightly so) for his performance. He got a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and he’s all set to get an Oscar.

      Like

  2. You write so well, Salil! So personal and fresh. And i agree with you too. Loved the filmmaking. Highly engaging stuff. But not what it wants to say. Keep writing such stuff!

    Like

  3. Hello Mr. Shankar,

    Quite an articulation. While I agree, in general, with your view on teachers imparting knowledge and not programming their students, I don’t agree with the same being juxtaposed against Terrence Fletcher’s character in “Whiplash”. In the movie, it is clearly potrayed that Fletcher is the “conductor” of the band and not their teacher and that Fletcher is interested in upholding his reputation as the blemishless leader of a band which thrives on its consistency and quality. This movie is a take on “conductor and musicians” and not “teacher and student”.

    Like

    • @Prasanna,

      I did get that feeling of him being just the conductor, but the fact is the fictional “Shaffer Music Conservatory” is a school and Fletcher is the conductor of the premier Jazz band of the school, while there are other Jazz bands and, seemingly, other musical troupes of the school as well.

      In music learning, teachers mostly give musical notes, and students practice and get the music right. For the basics, they have to learn themselves.

      How it works in there is: students learning on job. While the instructor behaves as the conductor by pointing students towards the “right sound” he thinks. So far, so good?

      If he was just the conductor, he’d just stay with the band wherever it went “with the same members.” Instead of students moving on and band getting changed year after year.

      So, in a manner, he is training students, and pointing them towards excellence. But then again, his pedagogy is problematic. A good instructor actually lets students talk, improvise, jam, along with getting the sound right. If it wasn’t the school, just a band with a violent conductor…I’d respond to the film differently. Practically because it’s a school, and that too which is trying to get its students an exposure at the professional level, it freaks me out if training is conducted in that manner, in real (it doesn’t, mostly, thankfully.)

      And you are spot on, the film is about characters, and the experience it delivers as a visual narrative…you and I get that, people who’d see the movie as a movie, as objectively as possible, will get that, but people who’d get carried away will think Fletcher is right. Who is, in fact, a monster. That’s why I said Whiplash is a terrific film. But I am skeptical to recommend it to everyone.

      Do let me know what you think. I’d be interested. 🙂

      Like

  4. I loved the film, with great acting and good musical score, but yes i have the same problem like you mentioned,for any student to bloom under his teacher i guess apart from discipline, respect one needs love and compassion. I have meet a lot of teachers who have this streak of beating, name calling and humiliating students as they feel students will not grow otherwise.

    Fantastic review.

    Like

  5. After watching this movie, I am awakened. Especially after reading numerous reviews that don’t seem to get it..

    Your review is by far the best I have seen.
    I took something a little different from the film.. I believe that Fletcher did find his “Charlie Parker”.
    I did not get a teacher/student relationship from this film as much as I
    saw a person who knew (and set the current standard of) excellence and a person who possessed it, but was not able to produce it until it passed the ultimate truth.
    Because Fletcher had zero comprimise in the matter and was very blatant about what excellence consisted of, and Neiman knowing he had not missed a single detail in perfecting his talent, he perfomed at a level that he may have never reached..
    Because Fletcher knew excellence did not come to that level without the courage needed to push it over the top, he never comprimised.
    In my opinion, this movie was about that glimpse of greatness that is very rare and only lasts for a brief moment in time. Because of spite and the provided (forced) abilty to use it as the fuel to ignite excellence, we saw that Neiman truly had it, and when it entered that concert hall, Fletcher’s heart bled with the pure joy of it’s presence.
    Would he have achieved that level without that spite instilled?
    I am certain that Neiman held Fletcher’s opinion of him, in a higher regard than anything else.
    Earning Fletcher’s respect and true excellence, were one in the same. Fletcher provided a clear target.
    I agree with all that you mentioned on teaching, I just believe this movie was revealing that final stretch to greatness, not the beginning or middle paths that had been completed. I have to believe that many get close, but never reach that final stretch to greatness. If they were at that point and couldn’t quite reach it, I belive most would give anything to have a Fletcher..

    R Smith

    Like

Share your Thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.