When good movie-making meets wrong audience

I must admit that all of the hoopla about “Whiplash” actually delayed my watching it by many months. I’m not always anti-hoopla, but when it comes to something as close to my heart as the great American art form of jazz, and drums in particular, I have a natural skepticism regarding anything blessed by the same crowd that most often doesn’t give jazz the time of day. But iTunes 99-cent movie-of-the-week offering was too easy to pass up.

I enjoyed the tersely executed cinematography and shot direction. Director Damien Chazelle clearly has a good eye for film. As the writer, he engaged me only off and on with his overly-simplistic plot-line of oppressive teacher and determined but victimized student. But the more time I spent thinking on it, the more I could appreciate it more as metaphor for the creative struggle and conflicting motivations that we can face in pursuing what we love. Chazelle’s choice of music, particularly jazz, as the setting for this melodrama was where it misfired for me although I know I’m in a pretty small part of his overall audience. But friends who know me as a drummer with a emphasis on jazz in my career have asked me how authentic it I think Whiplash is, so hear are my thoughts. I’ve read that Chazelle drew inspiration for the story from his own experience playing drums in his high school jazz band. If true, then what he put on screen in the character of Andrew Neiman, the film’s protagonist, must have rung true for him. The problem for me is, there’s very little jazz, not to mention soul, in what Andrew does, how he practices, what he pursues, and why. The wild swings between somewhat inspired and beginner-level drumming, sometimes in a matter of seconds, is so jarring that it strips some scenes of authenticity. Chazelle uses this to drive his narrative, but the playing isn’t inspired enough (to someone who knows great jazz drumming) to carry this narrative about becoming the next Charlie Parker or Buddy Rich. The lead character played by Miles Teller struggles with his craft too much in a battle which most musicians know is far more about submitting than it is about conquering. Maybe expecting to see then Zen of drumming or of jazz evidenced in a story like this is too much. Maybe it would only hamper Chazelle’s ability to tell the story he wants to tell. I sense that may have been the case. Jazz and drumming are the setting but the story really isn’t about them at all, and that’s what made me the wrong person to comment on the movie, which showcased strong direction and performances but which dropped the ball for those who know what it takes to be a drummer and play jazz.

As for all the hoopla about JK Simmons’ acting tour de force, what’s the big deal? Undoubtedly, Simmons is a fine actor. I always enjoy him but haven’t seen enough of him to know much about his range. His character in Whiplash is just like his character in Spider-Man, minus the tongue in cheek. He was funny mean in Spider-Man. In Whiplash, he is just sociopath mean. I’d like to know why the dramatic performance of anger and meanness is considered so impressive? That is a character type that critics seem to adore. And strangely, it’s a very common emotion. All kinds of people, with no training whatsoever in the dramatic arts, whip that emotion out every day with great effectiveness when they get in a car and someone cuts them off in traffic, or maybe, just doesn’t move out of the passing lane quickly enough. By Whiplash’s standards, I’ve witnessed multiple Academy Award-worthy performances on the roads near where I live. Portraying aggression and overt anger is one of the easiest things an actor can perform. I really don’t find it all that impressive, any more than I do lots of musical notes, traveling by at rapid speed, without much soul. For me, moments in great acting, as well as in great musical performances, are marked by a restrained exterior that hints at a much more complex, emotional interior. Subtlety is difficult. It takes great skill to project. And great crescendo points are impressive often in direct proportion to their rarity. In our sensationalisn-obsessed society, high drama is profoundly overused. We live in a world of 24/7 drama. Our threshold for emotional engagement has crept upward, far beyond where it was when I was a young drummer in a high school jazz band.

The only place I ever witnessed a mentor behaving close to the maniacal level of Simmon’s Fletcher character in “Whiplash” was on the football field. And that is not surprising, since many coaches approach their job as a military bootcamp sergeant does, intent on breaking down the individuals so they can build them back up as a symbiotic group. That may serve the military in wartime and even some coaches in sports, although not without cost to the individual, but it is ludicrous as an approach to inspiring soulful music making.

I think Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight (1986), which featured an actual jazz legend, Dexter Gordon, and Clint Eastwood’s Bird (1988) with a terrific performance by the gifted Forest Whitaker, offered far more sensitive and realistic views into, shall we say, the jazz experience. But jazz on the big screen is still a largely unexplored, albeit difficult, frontier. Here’s hoping Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis pic Miles Ahead sets a new standard when it releases in October of this year.

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