January 2015

it ain't got that swing

//philip conklin

© 2014   Brach Goodman  , " Struggle "

© 2014 Brach Goodman, "Struggle"

Shelton G. Berg, Dean, Frost School of Music, University of Miami:

I saw the trailer and was so disgusted that I vowed not to see it. The premise turns my stomach.

John Murphy, Jazz Department Chair, University of North Texas:

I saw Whiplash last night after having seen only the trailer and having avoided reading reviews or talking to people who had seen it. I haven’t researched the director or anything about the film. This is just my immediate reaction to watching the film.

The film fails on several levels.

As a representation of jazz education today, it’s a catalog of what not to do. No educator could get positive results with that harsh approach. The best educators have high standards, to be sure, but they encourage students to meet them through teaching and encouragement that might be friendly, serious, or even stern, as the situation requires, but never as cruel as the abuse endured by the students in the fictional conservatory in the film.

As a representation of music-making in university jazz programs, it fails to show the centrality of improvisation and collaboration. It gives the impression that the main goal of a large ensemble is ensemble perfection at competitions. I can remember only one solo improvisation besides the drum solos (the trombone solo in the final scene). It fails to show how the large ensemble is the setting for the collaborative development of students as composers, arrangers, improvisers, and ensemble players. No program that sets students against each other in such harsh competition could expect to continue to attract students. While it’s a good thing when students win recognition as individuals or as part of ensembles, winning competitions is not the goal. The goal is positive development as a musician and as a person. Everything about the performances in the film, especially the rehearsal techniques, struck me as unmusical. The parts where the director kept cutting the band off after it had played for half a second made me want to holler. The film shows a student practicing to the point of bloodshed and trying to play fast swing with a right arm that’s so rigid it looks like it could be in cast.

As an example of the use of a myth from jazz history (the Jo Jones-Charlie Parker cymbal incident) as motivation, it fails. While it is possible to find examples of veteran jazz musicians humiliating younger players (Buddy Rich, another prominent reference in the film, comes to mind), positive mentoring relationships, such as the one between Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, are much more common, and are given much more respect in the jazz community.

I strongly disliked this film.


As a psychological drama about an overbearing teacher’s emotional torture of a student, Whiplash is mildly successful. As a film about a student and a professor of jazz, Whiplash is as monumental a failure as one could imagine. The film could have been about boxing, or ballet dancing, or competitive fly fishing and nothing much would have been lost. And it would have had about the same relation to the music it portrays. In translating jazz to the screen, director Damien Chazelle’s ideas seem to have stopped at quick cuts between close-ups of trombone slides and cymbal crashes punctuating corny big band tunes. Whiplash gives no consideration to the process of practice, to a jazz community, to jazz education, or to music.

What makes this more distressing is that Whiplash has been met with near universal acclaim. The film enjoys a balmy 96% on Rotten Tomatoes; has won nominations from the Golden Globes, Screen Actors’ Guild, and copious film critics’ societies; has drummed up all sorts of Oscar buzz; and is generally being hailed as a great movie. All the more reason to respectfully consider its failures.

A few outliers have written about Whiplash’s failure to evoke jazz, notably Richard Brody, who wrote passionately about how the movie gets the music wrong. But Whiplash is about not only jazz, but jazz education, and in that sense its failure is even more monumental. Having been through a jazz education myself, I was shocked at how blatantly the film disregarded any thoughtful consideration of its subject.

Miles Teller plays Andrew Neyman, a first-year jazz drummer at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory, the best music school in the country. He’s the second-chair drummer in the second tier jazz band, but he’s ambitious. He wants to be one of the greats, like his idol Buddy Rich. The choice of Buddy Rich as Andrew’s musical hero is a good place to start in diagnosing the film’s attitude towards jazz. Brody describes Rich as, “A loud and insensitive technical whiz, a TV personality, not a major jazz inspiration.” What strikes me about choosing Buddy Rich as Andrew’s jazz idol is the unabashed laziness of it; Buddy Rich is by far the jazz drummer with the most widely recognizable name among the general public. When I saw the trailer, I was sure that J.K. Simmons proclaiming “We’ve got Buddy Rich here!” while Andrew was playing was meant as a snide joke, not praise. Worst of all, Buddy Rich is the only real-life jazz musician, as far as I can remember, whose name is ever mentioned, or whose music is ever listened to in the film.

Probably more apropos to this film’s inspiration is Buddy Rich’s penchant for ranting and cursing at his band, numerous examples of which can be found on YouTube. Someone with more patience than me might go through these infamous “bus tapes” to find lines lifted for Whiplash. But even listening for a few minutes, one can see more than a little similarity to Fletcher, the domineering jazz professor whose torture of Neyman is the emotional center of the film. So it’s not Rich’s music, but his attitude towards his band that influenced Whiplash, one of the first signs that jazz may not be central to this film about jazz.

And as the film goes on it methodically reveals its utter lack of attention and respect to how jazz is played and rehearsed, and shows no ambition for seriousness or verisimilitude. A few clips will help to illustrate this.

At Shaffer, everyone is trying to get the attention and approval of professor Terrence Fletcher, leader of the conservatory’s acclaimed Studio Band, and a mythical presence who looms over all things jazz. Why? The movie doesn’t bother to explain; it only cloaks him in gravitas and assumes we’re along for the ride. In, I believe, the first scene of the film, Neyman’s practice session catches Fletcher’s ear.

The problem here is the last bit, when Fletcher asks Neyman to play “double-time swing.” First of all, Neyman comes in nowhere close to the tempo Fletcher counted off, and sounds, to put it gently, pretty awful; it’s not so much that his time is off as there’s no time at all. But, of course, the real problem is that Fletcher wanted double-time swing. “Double it,” he says. But Neyman starts again, playing the exact same thing, only this time with a little bass drum. Apparently that constitutes “double time” for Fletcher, whose reputation as a great jazz educator is shattered ten minutes into the film. (For a good example of double time swing, listen to this song, which goes into double time at 33 seconds in).

Later, though, Neyman proves himself and beats out his better-looking rival, Connelly, for a spot in Fletcher’s Studio Band. But Neyman soon finds that Fletcher’s pedagogy derives more from a drill sergeant-bad cop philosophy than a jazz education one. In the name of perfection, he berates and humiliates his students into musical complicity, and his fist lands particularly hard on Neyman, who, after hours of bloody-handed practicing, finds himself the top drummer in the band. But Fletcher brings in a challenger.

Again, Neyman is sounding terrible in this clip. “I don’t want you to worry about hits right now, just tempo,” Fletcher says. So the challenge put to Neyman is simply to play a swing drum pattern at the tempo Fletcher counts off. I’m hard pressed to think of a simpler task for a drummer; any drum student in a jazz program who cannot do this should probably switch majors. To use a more populist metaphor, it would be as if a quarterback was asked to toss the ball to a stationary player five yards away. And Neyman, ostensibly the top drummer at the best music school in the country, can’t do it. He throws the ball backwards. Connelly’s performance is no better, having no resemblance to the tempo Fletcher counted off, and is even more cacophonous and unintelligible than Neyman’s. Even if, as he later claims, Fletcher brought in Connelly only to push Neyman harder, Connelly’s performance is too dreadful to even qualify as a motivational tool.

In the film, a drummer coming in at the right tempo is (other than one instance of trombones out of tune) the only musical problem the entire band ever faces (see this clip, for instance). Nearly every band rehearsal, and about 50 percent of the movie, is entirely devoted to trying to get the drummers to come in at the right tempo. Get some new drummers, man! If you can’t get past this one technical hurdle, there’s no way you’re ever going to be able to spend the time on questions of musicality and finesse that make a big band really sound good. It would be like spending every practice trying to get the quarterback to successfully receive a snap from the center.

This all brings us to Fletcher, who’s at the heart of all this nonsense. The problem with Fletcher, a character with whom audiences and critics are unilaterally enamored, is that, apart from being a fascistic taskmaster, he displays nothing in terms of musical or pedagogic knowledge that would have earned him a reputation as a great jazz educator. As shown in the clips above, the film is awash with examples of Fletcher’s musical cluelessness (for instance, this clip again, in which he tells Neyman that he’s dragging when he is, in fact, rushing every time).

Worse, we don’t even know what instrument Fletcher plays until three-quarters of the way through the movie. Jazz professors are, especially at the best music schools, accomplished jazz musicians. The faculty members of Juilliard’s jazz department, on which the fictional Shaffer conservatory is probably based, include jazz greats Ron Carter, Kenny Barron, Wynton Marsalis, and Steve Turre, among others. During rehearsals, jazz professors are constantly playing their instrument, singing specific phrases, clapping rhythms, and doing all sorts of other musical things to explain musical concepts. That Fletcher’s only tool is his temper, that we never hear him sing or play one note at rehearsals is, if not thoroughly disturbing, at least a severe oversight. When we finally do see Fletcher play, at a small jazz club late in the film, it sounds like barely passable lounge music, and the performance is so flaccid and uninspired you wouldn’t even notice it if it were oozing out of the speakers of the hotel lobby you happened to be walking through.

Basically, Whiplash follows Neyman’s rise from mediocre jazz drum student to professional-level jazz whiz wowing audiences with a five-minute drum solo at Lincoln Center (a process that, inconceivably, takes a couple of months). After Fletcher’s abuse pushes him to the limit, Neyman tackles and beats up Fletcher on stage and is subsequently kicked out of Shaffer. Later, his father hires a lawyer and urges him to testify against Fletcher; he does — anonymously — and it leads to Fletcher also being kicked out of Shaffer. Later, when Neyman sees him performing (badly) at a jazz club, Fletcher asks him to perform with a professional big band at Lincoln center. However, Fletcher knows that it’s Neyman who ratted on him, and when the band gets on stage Neyman has the wrong music. It’s a major debacle (which will ruin Neyman’s chances of ever working in New York City again) until Neyman takes control of the performance and plays a theatrical drum solo that stuns the crowd and finally earns Fletcher’s approval.

I think the primary question posed by Whiplash is not necessarily, What is the line between single-minded dedication to a craft and sociopathy? or, Does producing greatness in a pupil justify emotion trauma? but, How on Earth did this kid who’s proven himself to be a mediocre and inconsistent drummer play a standing-ovation-worthy drum solo at Lincoln Center?

The film conceives the development of musical talent not as a slow process of growth, immersion in the language of music, or an expansion of technical and conceptual abilities, but as an evisceration. Musicianship is not developed, but wrested from you after a series of debasements and physical torture. According to the film’s logic, we all, no matter how terrible we are at the drums (because Neyman is truly terrible), have a great jazz musician inside of us, who will be set free only if we are pushed hard enough, shamed deeply enough, made to become bitter and angry enough. Fletcher doesn’t have to improve musicianship, only humiliate and terrify the jazz musician out of you. And throughout the film, Neyman is never seen to be improving in any way. In his many practice sessions, all we see him do is pound senselessly away at the drums as quickly and powerfully as he can until his hands bleed. But physical endurance is only a very small part of playing jazz drums well. More importantly, drummers must develop a sense of time, of groove, of melody. Not only does Neyman not spend time on any of these things, but the film shows no interest whatsoever in representing them cinematically, which should be the first thing you do if you make a film about a student studying jazz drumming. Chazelle has said, “True practice is actually about just doing what you’re bad at, and working on it, and that’s not fun. Practice is about beating your head against the wall.” That explains a lot about the attitude of the film, but nothing about what practice actually is. It’s more important how you practice than that you practice. Beating your head against the wall won’t get you very far, in music or any other field; only practicing the right things in the right ways will lead to improvement. But Whiplash is interested neither in exploring what those things are, nor trying to represent them on film.

Maybe it sounds sentimental, but, contrary to the philosophy presented by Whiplash, jazz is, by its nature, a communal, collaborative art form. What distinguishes jazz from other genres apart from stylistic differences is the importance of collective improvisation. For this to happen successfully, all players must be constantly listening and responding to each other, must be sensitive to the smallest variations of form and style, must, in short, be constantly in communication. Whiplash, by contrast, posits cutthroat competition between individuals as the sole means of producing great music. Fletcher is so motivated by vengeance and rivalries that he’s willing to sabotage a performance of his own band in front of a packed house at one of the most respected jazz venues in the country in order to humiliate an unknown.

Jazz doesn’t entail competition, but reliance on other musicians. Jazz is performed in groups, and the best jazz musicians play with others as often as they can. One of the primary attractions of jazz education is the abundance of other jazz musicians with whom you can play and learn. But Whiplash features no musical interactions between any student musicians outside of the strictly policed big band rehearsal space. A serious student attending a jazz conservatory in New York City would also take part in the city’s vibrant jazz scene: attending concerts, playing at jam sessions, meeting other musicians. That Neyman spends all of his time outside of rehearsal (which also seems to be the only class he’s taking at this conservatory) alone in a practice room bleeding on a drum set goes a long way toward explaining why his playing is so inconsistent. In a group of jazz musicians, there will necessarily be a community of players who practice together, who call one another for gigs, and who learn from one another.

The problem is not that Whiplash has misrepresented jazz. Worse, Chazelle’s project seems to have been to eradicate any trace of jazz from his film about jazz musicians.

The reviewers who have praised Whiplash will probably say, “So what? Whiplash isn’t about jazz; it’s about the development of artistry, about the limits of the relationship between teacher and student, etc. The fact that the characters are jazz musicians isn’t relevant to the quality of the film. To complain that the jazz in the film is bad or unrealistic is just nitpicking.” And maybe for everyone but the small section of the population who are jazz musicians or have studied jazz in college that may be true. But to relinquish a film’s responsibility to its subject entails a profound disrespect for that subject and for the film audience. If a filmmaker makes a film about jazz, or plumbing, or interracial marriage, or war, or whatever else, his or her first responsibility should be to accurately and objectively represent that subject. Not to do so is an act of deception and artistic cowardice. A film that presents nothing new, that reflects back an image that we already recognize, is worthless and uninteresting; one that gives thoughtful consideration to its subject, that provides us a clear window to a world we may not already know, is incalculably more valuable, and more compelling. That Whiplash, despite its anti-representation of a rich and expressive art form, is being hailed as a masterpiece says a lot more about what is valued in the commercial film industry than about the film’s intrinsic merits.

There’s also the fact that jazz in particular has a rich cultural — and specifically American — history, with especially strong ties to the history of cinema, an art which was born around the same time. The expressive and stylistic capabilities that jazz can offer the cinema are endless — the liberating, spontaneous spirit of improvisation; the rhythmic pulse of swing; its deep roots in American culture, as our country’s only endemic art form. But in no way could the cinematic style of Whiplash be compared to jazz; the film is interested only in exploiting the pretensions of arty seriousness that define jazz’s reputation in modern culture. Jonathan Rosenbaum has written, “The way jazz is used in any film winds up telling us a lot about the people who made it. We discover something about their eyes, their ears, their sense of rhythm and pacing, and their storytelling abilities, not to mention their cultural attitudes. To regard jazz as an expendable or neutral element is to turn one’s back on all the cinematic and dramatic possibilities it has to offer.”

Apart from a co-write on The Last Exorcism Part II (judging from the title, he apparently has a soft spot for nonsense) and Grand Piano, which concerns a concert pianist, all of Chazelle’s film work has involved a jazz musician protagonist — Guy and Madeleine on a Park Bench (2009), a short film version of Whiplash (2013), Whiplash, and the upcoming La La Land. I’m not sure if he envisions himself as some kind of ambassador for jazz on film, or if he’s only interested in exploiting jazz’s cultural capital as a way to elevate the surface artiness of his films; either way, if he continues to purport to represent jazz on film I hope in the future he’ll consider attempting to pay a modicum of respect to his subject.

P.S. As a palate-cleanser to the soulless anti-jazz of Whiplash, check out this month’s recommendations for two great big band jazz albums.

//Philip Conklin is a co-founder of The Periphery.


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