Guest review … Blood on the Cymbals: The Splashy Brutality of Whiplash

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[Image Source: Google Images]

Last year about this time, my talented pal Rebecca Biber and I traded point/ counterpoint on The Grand Budapest Hotel. I loathed it (see here), and she loved it (see here).

Twelve months later, we find ourselves at (not quite as extreme) loggerheads over the similarly Oscar-recognized film Whiplash (now available on DVD/Blu-Ray and via streaming video). It was one of my top three films of the year (alongside Nightcrawler and Foxcatcher). I daresay for Ms. Biber … it would not be similarly ranked (though she did seem to enjoy aspects of the film).

Check out her assessment of Whiplash below, and you can revisit my take here.

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Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Google Images]

Blood on the Cymbals: The Splashy Brutality of Whiplash

By Rebecca Biber

Accuracy. That’s the object of the game—and the mind games. Tempo accuracy, pitch accuracy, being on time for the gig and keeping yourself and the music in irreproachable order. And in its evocation of certain states of mind or stages of life, Whiplash is fairly accurate. But the film suffers from a cluster of small miscalculations, dropped beats, and overeager entrances.

I went in hoping to experience, for once, a film about musicians that was believable, at least on the order of good fiction. My hopes had been dashed over the years by healthily-hyped but thoroughly disappointing movies from Shine to Hilary and Jackie to Mr. Holland’s Opus, only to be renewed by meaningful cinematic pieces like Ray, Bird, and A Late Quartet. It might not make sense, at first, to lump these all into the same genre: after all, some are biopics, others are purely fictional; some treat classical musicians’ lives and careers while others depict jazz musicians. But they are all of a piece, in that they all portray stereotypes of struggling artists. Brilliant artists consumed and, usually, destroyed by mental illness, substance abuse, personal grief, or all of the above. Whiplash is in the same vein, but the twist is that the tortured young artist here chooses to be at the mercy of a merciless mentor.

Whiplash started out as a portrayal of music school I could relate to. The protagonist, Andrew Neiman, faces competitiveness, endless rehearsal and practice, and the utter loneliness that accrues from living only for the pursuit of perfect musicianship, deriving one’s sense of self exclusively from that, rather than from any internal or family-based sense of worth (despite the best efforts of warm Jewish dad Paul Reiser). People do practice to the point of injury. The presence of women in jazz is still, sadly, negligible. Music professors and students have a relationship closer to that of master and apprentice in a medieval trade guild than the service-oriented relationship prevalent in the wider academic world. Often, our mentors are not people we like. They are sometimes people whose appeal as role models is lost on anyone other than their devotees. Certainly, J.K. Simmons’s portrayal of Terence Fletcher is over the top in its vitriolic verbosity and turn-on-a-dime moments of sweetness contrasted with utter sadism. Young Neiman readily begins to adopt Fletcher’s ways, turning tough guy himself and taking out his anger on peers and drum heads like.

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Google Images]

And here’s where writer/director Damien Chazelle started to lose me. When you are portraying a specific world, such as that of a conservatory, you must adhere to the governing rules thereof. Its jargon, its specific codes of behavior. Any musician watching the film can’t help but be annoyed by the errors piling up: a sequence depicting rising piano notes showed the pianist’s hand moving down the keyboard. One doesn’t scribble over the charts in ink, because all of the (expensive) music is on loan from the school. Music professors and students don’t fling or destroy their equipment, no matter how frustrated they feel (again, following genre pattern: a bizarre scene in Hilary and Jackie has Emily Watson freezing her cello, and a fistfight in A Late Quartet endangers priceless violins more than the men themselves). You can’t actually live in a practice room. Worst of all is the over acting. The more intensely Neiman plays, the more spasmodically his face contorts. He spends the entire film convincing us how hard he is working. Take a look, sometime, at a percussionist playing a strenuous piece: he or she will be almost preternaturally still, facial features showing a Zen-like concentration and focus of energy.   To put it another way, when you are working extremely hard at the instrument, there is no time or attention left to devote to grimacing and mouthing swears. (The over-playing phenomenon is my only complaint about the otherwise excellent Charlie Parker biopic; Forest Whitaker should have noticed that a saxophonist’s fingers move minutely when playing fast and that enthusiasm or inventiveness at the instrument does not translate to frenetic physical movement. The sound is bop, the technique used to achieve it bears no visual resemblance.)

Speaking of Charlie Parker, it seems that all jazz students and jazz films have to invoke the Bird legend. The story that Fletcher and Neiman volley between them has become both a cautionary tale and a gauntlet thrown down to those who might not have the personal tenacity to achieve the fulfillment of their talent through practice. But the Charlie Parker story—that he thought he was good until a better musician took him down a few notches by tossing a cymbal at him onstage—doesn’t fit with the narrative of Whiplash or, more generally, with the story of a striving music student. Parker was a gigging musician, not a conservatory boy. And the privileged few who gain admission to conservatory go there looking for toughness, not for pats on the back. That the audience is supposed to disbelieve or admonish Fletcher for his ruthlessness is, itself, unbelievable, as his brand of humiliation coupled with exactitude is unusual only as a matter of degree, not of form. Once the narrative turns to the question of Fletcher’s ouster from his position, the movie wants to have it both ways. Either we are viewing a film about politically correct university dons fearing a lawsuit from appalled parents, or we are seeing the raw process of how music students get toughened, personally and professionally, in their closed rooms.

Neiman, as a character, also wants to have it both ways. He craves Fletcher’s approval, yet questions his decision making and, in fact, sabotages his bandmates by performing unprepared (and possibly concussed). He wants to be a decent guy—or at least receive the benefits a nice guy is entitled to—but not have to answer for his failures. This characterization struck me as the truest part of the film: the essentially conflicted kid/young adult, aspiring to professionalism but achieving a kind of precocious crankiness instead. (Full disclosure, as an undergrad music major I was once broken up with by a guy because he said he needed to practice more. I got a slightly shorter version of the speech Neiman delivers to his girlfriend Nicole in the film.) Certain plot points do follow a strange internal logic: when Fletcher pulls the rug out from under Neiman yet again, the trick only works because Neiman has chosen to isolate himself from his peers through personal nastiness, modeling his mentor. Had he had even one friend in the band, that guy would have said, “Hey, what do you think of that last-minute set list change?”

Biber and Sexton

Biber and Sexton

Kudos for the one moment of absolute accuracy Chazelle delivers on the nature of music making: Neiman, at the dinner table with some obnoxious jock cousins, gives as good as he gets in a fight over whose activities matter more, athletes or musicians. The young drummer has just described winning a competition with his select ensemble. One of the cousins says, “But how can you judge a music competition? Isn’t that subjective?” And Andrew replies, flatly, “No.”

Some things that appear vague or subjective are in fact easy to discern, if your senses are attuned: either a drummer is rushing or dragging the tempo. Either a professor corrects his students effectively, caring only for the music itself, or creates unnecessary personal drama which takes focus away from the music. I didn’t buy the central conceit of the Fletcher character, despite Simmons’s compelling performance. There are many ways to motivate, and the most effective motivators don’t get personal because they don’t need to. It’s gratuitous, like Neiman’s flashy fills at the beginning. It belies the idea of superb performance. If you want a student to count in 14/8, you don’t get in his way by throwing around insults and ethnic slurs. The audience is supposed to see Fletcher’s method as leading inevitably to Neiman’s success, but it doesn’t. Achieving conservatory admission, being in the right place at the right time, an ability to collaborate (which Neiman sorely lacks): all these things will count more than a semester under the tutelage of one crazy guy with a really good ear.

Where Whiplash started in the realm of believability, it ended in the realm of pure fantasy, and a dark fantasy at that. That’s not an objection, as the idea of mentor and protégé meeting in a cruel yet mutually pleasurable musical duel could only occur in that cloudy realm where the audience agrees to sit through a five-minute trap set solo and the competition judges don’t disqualify the ensemble. In a way, this skewing of the music movie genre was much more enjoyable than the preposterous treacle of Shine or the bloodless melodrama of Hilary and Jackie. But it was mere entertainment; it stopped short of genuine emotional plangency. There was no one to sympathize with, and no one to root for, except maybe the patient horn section that saw the whole episode through with true professional aplomb and jazz cool.

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

14 thoughts on “Guest review … Blood on the Cymbals: The Splashy Brutality of Whiplash

  1. Good review Roy. It’s a solid movie that gives both Teller and Simmons chances to dig deep into these characters and have us see for who they are.

    • Actors of fully Jewish background: Logan Lerman, Natalie Portman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Mila Kunis, Bar Refaeli, James Wolk, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julian Morris, Adam Brody, Esti Ginzburg, Kat Dennings, Gabriel Macht, Erin Heatherton, Odeya Rush, Anton Yelchin, Paul Rudd, Scott Mechlowicz, Lisa Kudrow, Lizzy Caplan, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Gal Gadot, Debra Messing, Robert Kazinsky, Melanie Laurent, Shiri Appleby, Justin Bartha, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Margarita Levieva, Elizabeth Berkley, Halston Sage, Seth Gabel, Corey Stoll, Mia Kirshner, Alden Ehrenreich, Eric Balfour, Jason Isaacs, Jon Bernthal, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy.

      Andrew Garfield and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are Jewish, too (though I don’t know if both of their parents are).

      Actors with Jewish mothers and non-Jewish fathers: Jake Gyllenhaal, Dave Franco, James Franco, Scarlett Johansson, Daniel Day-Lewis, Daniel Radcliffe, Alison Brie, Eva Green, Joaquin Phoenix, River Phoenix, Emmy Rossum, Rashida Jones, Jennifer Connelly, Sofia Black D’Elia, Nora Arnezeder, Goldie Hawn, Ginnifer Goodwin, Amanda Peet, Eric Dane, Jeremy Jordan, Joel Kinnaman, Ben Barnes, Patricia Arquette, Kyra Sedgwick, Dave Annable, Ryan Potter.

      Actors with Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers, who themselves were either raised as Jews and/or identify as Jews: Ezra Miller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Alexa Davalos, Nat Wolff, Nicola Peltz, James Maslow, Josh Bowman, Winona Ryder, Michael Douglas, Ben Foster, Jamie Lee Curtis, Nikki Reed, Zac Efron, Jonathan Keltz, Paul Newman.

      Oh, and Ansel Elgort’s father is Jewish, though I don’t know how Ansel was raised. Robert Downey, Jr. and Sean Penn were also born to Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. Armie Hammer and Chris Pine are part Jewish.

      Actors with one Jewish-born parent and one parent who converted to Judaism: Dianna Agron, Sara Paxton (whose father converted, not her mother), Alicia Silverstone, Jamie-Lynn Sigler.

  2. i think rebecca has written an excellent review, though i’m siding with yours, as i’m excited to see it and plan on it being a great film experience. fingers crossed! i like the point/counterpoint approach, kind of like a friendlier and smarter version of siskel and ebert. )

  3. Rebecca is a genius of course….and I recommend that everybody go see DANNY COLLINS because al pacino is smart enough to never allow his fingers to be filmed pretending to ripple over and up and down the keyboard…the baby grand and al with piano music floating high above both of them…I guess the top was sorta up? do not recall…but none of that for al…smart move…and I always hate bios of music-ish legends or wannabeeeeees…and for what it is worth I detest jocks (their nickname appearing above in this review) always and in all ways…FEAR STRIKES OUT may be the cinematic momentary exception because tony perkins fools us into thinking he may have ever engaged in the game of baseball…and loses his mind. I applaud that concept…yes. oh, and tony perkins can do no wrong in my book.

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