Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Whiplash: Two Thumbs Down

I remember when I graduated from Peabody Conservatory in 1991; I was already earning a living as a jazz pianist in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. area. I had no other responsibilities( no day job, wife, children, etc...), so I spent a lot of my free time going to the movies. It was hard for my friends to see movies with me because usually I had already seen everything.  My idol was Baltimore pianist  and movie buff Tim Murphy, who not only was an incredible musician, but also told me that when he would play a gig  at The Closet, he would play one song at the beginning, and then-

" there were so many guitar players who wanted to sit in, I would go see a movie, come back and play the last tune, and get paid for the night!" 

The world has really changed since then. I'm a father and a husband and a professor, so I don't get to actually go to a movie theater often. Not that anyone needs to go to an actual theater to see a movie; now you can stream every movie that has ever been made on your phone, if not your ipad, laptop, Roku, or whatever your favorite device happens to be.

So when I do actually have a chance to go to a theater and sit in the dark and concentrate on a movie, well, it had better be worth it. Recently, I went with my wife to see "Whiplash," the story of a young jazz drum student pitted against the most abusive music professor in modern history. This movie was recommended by a lot of non-musicians, and has been almost universally praised in the press as well as sites like Rotten Tomatoes. My mother-in-law AND my father-in-law insisted that I and my musician wife would LOVE this movie. I had high hopes to say the least.

Fifteen minutes in, I was ready to leave. "Whiplash" is, to begin with, so technically inaccurate that you wonder whether the director bothered to consult with anyone about basic things like:

What's it really like  at a music school?
How does jazz music work?
How does one set up a set of drums?

and so forth......

 I wish someone would have called me; I would be the cheapest music consultant in the world. I'm not saying that a movie about music school has to be 100 percent accurate. I'm saying that this movie is SO inaccurate that it puts in the comically bad category for me- the same category as gems like, "Plan 9 from Outer Space," "Ishtar," "From Justin To Kelly," and so forth.

How inaccurate, you say? Let me count the ways:

1.Most of the things Andrew( the drumming student) practices are just terrible.

2. Nobody practices or plays drums day after day and bleeds all over the kit. (Sure, people develop tendonitis, but I guess that doesn't look good on film.)

3. Young jazz students today look up to Elvin Jones, Jack DeJohnette, Bill Stewart, Brian Blade, and bunch of other folks, perhaps in addition to Buddy Rich, but I'm willing to bet money that you will not find a young jazz student who singularly idolizes Buddy Rich. More young students know about Eric Harland and Ari Honeig than Buddy Rich.

4. The way Fletcher conducts and rehearses the band is just ridiculous.

5. Sure, some professors are tough and they might even yell and perhaps make people upset. But Fletcher's abusiveness, even if he had tenure, wouldn't be tolerated for one second, especially in today's world of higher ed. There would be so many student complaints that Fletcher, if he wasn't fired, would be marginalized by teaching something where he couldn't be abusive. They wouldn't be able to handle all of the lawsuits coming their way. I wish I could say that this opens a discussion about the spectrum of discipline in music education. Unfortunately, Fletcher (played well by JK Simmons- I'm glad he gets a starring role) as a character is so over the top that even the scariest of band directors would be appalled by the character's behavior. Lucky they are in college; if this kind of professor was in high school he might very well end up in jail!

6. When Andrew walks by the jazz club and sees Fletcher as a special guest, he enters the club and hears the "great" Fletcher play piano. It's just embarrassingly bad. Afterwards, Fletcher talks to Andrew about the greats of jazz. Clearly, Fletcher is not even close, but this irony seems to be lost on folks who don't know the difference between what Fletcher plays and pretty much any decent working jazz pianist.

7. Andrew breaks up with his girlfriend because he says he needs time to practice and become great. I guess he didn't know what we call a jazz drummer without a girlfriend- homeless!......(thanks I'll be here all week, try the veal.....)

I could go on and on. I believe that these things will be obvious to most musicians who see the movie. What's telling is that non-musicians are not bothered in the slightest by these issues. When you consider how medical shows or legal shows or even historical movies seems to spend a lot of effort on painstaking accuracy, why would a jazz education movie clearly not even be bothered. If you saw a medical show where the doctor referred to the heart as part of the skeletal system, or ask the nurse to hand him a scalpel and she handed him a stethoscope, you'd be rolling in the aisle! That sounds more like a Zucker Brothers parody than anything else. It would be akin to if went to "The Passion Of The Christ," and instead hearing the dialogue in the historically relevant languages of Aramaic, Latin, and Hebrew, they just talked like they were modern day twenty somethings from California:

Caiphas:  So, you are like a king or something. Where  is this, like, Kingdom, Bro? I mean, you know, like , totally! You are, like a carpenter or something? Why don't you say something?Why don't you, like, tell me what's up, dude? Jesus:  Yo, Bro! I totally told everybody what was up with this, man!. I was like, all up at the Temple and what not, you know, like, I was totally all like, Hey everybody, I'm down with whatever...
  Temple Guard:   Bro, you need to like, chill when you talk to the High Priest, I mean, like, duh!
Jesus:     Come on, man, be cool, my man! Let's all just chillax, my homies.....

I think I've made my point. I think this speaks to the divide between musicians and the general public of today in a society which has cut music programs in schools, has let corporate monopolies control our radio and television so that they can bombard us with music which has no artistic merit or substance, and distract everyone with gadgets so that no one has any time or money left over to go out and see a live jazz band in their town. It's ironic to me that Andrew is hoping that Fletcher is going to make his career. How? By recommending him to Wynton Marsalis? Please! The idea putting up with Fletcher's abuse in order to have a career is just preposterous.

I decided to stay and watch the whole movie, and not just because my wife needed a ride home. I wanted to see if there was a point to the movie. I thought the ending was a good climax in terms of the story. I'll say this: "Whiplash" could have been a great movie if they had spent maybe an hour or two talking to a real jazz student. Again, I'll offer my consulting services for an extremely affordable price!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.