Whiplash: Sound and Fury
Whiplash (2014) is an utterly reprehensible film. About a young jazz drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) studying at a prestigious conservatory and his brutal instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the film understands nothing about the very subjects it tries to reflect: music (especially jazz), power dynamics, ensembles, etc. I sincerely thought about walking out quite early on in the film. With the film holding such rousing critical acclaim, a full deconstruction is necessary to really illustrate what’s insidiously nasty about Whiplash. I liken it to a silken blanket covering a pile of trash: great aesthetics (surface features that reviews look at) with an awful ideological base.
There is no joy in the music world of Whiplash. Our protagonist Andrew does not pursue music at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory for his passion for music. We never learn why he wants to play drums in particular, or why he wants to play jazz (aside from a quest for fame, but he’d probably be better off in the indie rock scene for that). We learn that he wants to be like Buddy Rich, a drummer who was more of a TV personality than anything else. As Richard Brody describes this idea:
Buddy Rich? A loud and insensitive technical whiz, a TV personality, not a major jazz inspiration. As I heard his name in the film, I spoke it in my head as dubiously as Leonardo DiCaprio says “Benihana” in “The Wolf of Wall Street.”
We rarely (if ever?) see him smile or enjoy playing music at all. Only Andrew’s abusive mentor Fletcher ever shows a hint of enjoyment when playing, playing smooth jazz of all things in a bar. It’s understandable that while under the gaze of Fletcher, no student would dare try to have fun in rehearsals, or perhaps even in their practice time his shadow casts a pall over them. But the film never illustrates joy, or any emotion for that matter, as an important part of music in the first place. Emotions are left at the door for technical precision, which is all that matters in this film world.
Richard Brody has an excellent article on Whiplash I already quoted from above, and his words on the movie’s view of music is worth noting here:
[Andrew] doesn’t study music theory, not alone and not (as Parker did) with his peers. There’s no obsessive comparing of recordings and styles, no sense of a wide-ranging appreciation of jazz history—no Elvin Jones, no Tony Williams, no Max Roach, no Ed Blackwell. In short, the musician’s life is about pure competitive ambition—the concert band and the exposure it provides—and nothing else. The movie has no music in its soul—and, for that matter, it has no music in its images. There are ways of filming music that are themselves musical, that conjure a musical feeling above and beyond what’s on the soundtrack, but Chazelle’s images are nothing of the kind.
Jazz and the White Ego
Whiplash‘s jazz is big band and nothing else. In the world of jazz the film illustrates, the Conservatory and Carnegie are everything. In reality, big band is actually a very small portion of the jazz world. It is very difficult for big band ensembles to tour, and it’s only a fraction of the jazz world, and an estranged one at that. But in Whiplash hammers Carnegie again and again as the end all be all of jazz musicians, everything the students aspire to. Gone is the politically incisiveness of jazz and its cultural history. Gone is the musical diversity that the film could have explored.
Gone too is the black historicity of the genre. When the majority of the students in the film are black, the two leads are white. Filmmaker Debra Granik deftly summarized how this is problematic, noting that generally:
“We celebrate the wealthy, the sentiment that they have privilege because [of] their ability to outsmart, beat out and take more. This yields films that also reinforce this, films in which the one white boy über alles plays the drums better than all black jazz students.”
To clarify, the competing jazz drummers in the film are all white, likely intentionally avoiding such race comparisons when playing in such a culturally important genre to black musicians. But Granik eloquently states the underlying problems of the film, how it celebrates the white musician for being the best, having damaging implications in regards to the cultural history of jazz. In the end, the movie presents the epitome of jazz playing old big band classics to rich white people. A conservative subgenre (relatively speaking) paired with conservative song choices to conservative people. It speaks nothing to the true revelatory nature that jazz holds, and in the end teaches the film’s audience very little about jazz music itself.
The Conservatory and the Industry
As mentioned before, the Conservatory is regarded as the only way towards stardom within the film. In reality, plenty of jazz musicians attend school, but plenty do not, and Andrew could easily display his talent in other venues. Andrew could become a famous jazz drummer, or drummer in general, outside the Conservatory. There is a vast swath of options for his musical skill that are never even recognized in the film. When the Conservatory dismisses Andrew, he literally packs up his drum kit and stops playing, as if in this digital age he could not continue his musical pursuits any other way. This goes hand in hand with the film’s portrayal of the jazz industry, where apparently Carnegie Hall is everything. It is certainly an achievement, but does nothing to broaden the minds of the audience to what jazz is doing now.
The Conservatory itself is a farce. We never see Andrew take classes, or as Richard Brody notes above, study music theory, history, or anything else necessary for a degree. We never even learn what kind of degree he’s working towards. The only two employees of the college we see are the conductors, Fletcher, and Andrew’s previous instructor in the beginning of the film. It begs the question how Fletcher stays in his job when he is massively physically and emotionally abusive towards his students. If there was a higher up in the administration protecting him because he brings prestige to the school, or if he was the chair of the music department, his presence would be at least a little more plausible (though a tad cliché). But as it stands, there is no logical reason how Fletcher even has a job.
For instance, early on in the film, Fletcher indirectly verbally insults his own colleague. Rudely interrupting Andrew’s then current conductor, Fletcher hosts mini auditions for students, remarking that the first chair (a female student) only got her position because she’s cute. (It’s kind of mortifying that this is played as a joke, or at least, people laughed in the theater I was in). It’s not only a sexist remark, but an insulting remark to that of his fellow instructor, an insult to his judgement that he has a poor perception of talent. (It’s also worth noting here that this student is the only female musician ever displayed in the film. Women themselves are a rarity in the film, the only other two coming to mind are Andrew’s love interest, and an older relative at a family dinner scene). How does one get away with disrespecting their own colleagues in a professional work environment without apparent repercussions, one might ask. The film never really offers an answer. It hurts the film not just because it’s realistically highly unlikely, but it devastates the validity of the central power dynamic explored in the film. Writer/director Damien Chazelle has openly stated this film and the character of Fletcher are based off of his own high school experiences in a jazz band. While I do not mean to diminish his real life experiences in any way, nor the abuse portrayed in the film, the notion that this is a realistic situation is not believable. And I don’t deny that abuse happens in real life, or even in the music world. But a teacher hitting his students, verbally berating them with homophobic and ethnic slurs, and even throwing a chair at Andrew, and not being immediately fired, is infeasible. And the film does nothing to prove this otherwise.
In Whiplash‘s pursuit to portray the solitary white boy’s triumph over adversity, the film lacks any sort of realism within the band ensemble’s interactions. Students rarely seem to interact with each other, and when they do, they never include Andrew. This adds even more (strained and false) drama to Andrew’s plight as a neglected artist. Strangely absent from the film is a scene where students warn Andrew on his first day of the abuse he’ll have to deal with. Do they not care about his wellbeing? Apparently.
Whiplash does not show connections to why fellow students seemingly shun him, aside from one line where a student tells him not to touch his music. There are no indications of (much) ill will. Instead, the students usually serve as a necessary backdrop. They students themselves are never named, except through Fletcher’s insults. What does it say when the majority of the students, black students, merely go by a combination of instruments and numbers in the credits?
There’s the argument that can be made that Fletcher has messed up his students so bad that they are emotionally stunted, but the film doesn’t support this well. But nobody tells someone about the abuse they’ve been experiencing at school? It finally takes a suicide to provoke any kind of oversight, which even then results from an outside lawsuit rather than an internal investigation or routine evaluation.
The film missed the camaraderie that can be and usually is present within ensembles. Friendship between others is something that’s even usually encouraged in college! But instead the group dynamics are lost to focus on the white male leads.
In the white jazz student’s dramatic quest for glory, there are plenty of contrivances along the way. It’s worth exploring one section of the film in particular to see this effect.
The band has a competition in a city a ways away. This is a college student group, but the students are expected to get their own ride there. No carpooling or group bus, rather unusual for a student group. The reason this is so important is it sets up the drama for the next set piece of the film, the performance. Despite coming from a seemingly relatively wealthy family (his father is a high school teacher, but his extended family clearly have money), Andrew must rely on public transportation for this trip. When his bus gets a flat tire, and he arrives late, losing his drumming spot in the performance. Though he fights for it tooth and nail, he gets it only if he grabs his own drumsticks, because Fletcher refuses to let him use anyone else’s. (This is a common crutch throughout the film, where Andrew loses vital things [sheet music, his drumsticks] to move the plot along). Andrew ends up getting in a car accident while trying to retrieve his sticks he left at a car rental place. When Andrew runs on stage right before a performance, covered in blood, students seem more concerned about his playing ability than his wellbeing. The audience too is unmoved by the blood (audiences themselves never factoring much into the film). It’s contrivance (no standard group bus?) after contrivance (he left his drumsticks behind? After he already suffered from losing sheet music earlier?) after contrivance (Fletcher won’t let him use anyone else’s?) after contrivance (Andrew gets into a car accident, but he’s just ok enough to walk, but hurt enough to play badly). It’s all a stack of contrivances to propel the drama. The film could have a valid turn at this point, where at the sight of Andrew’s bloody body, Fletcher realizes the devastation he has wrought upon him. But instead, the band tries to play, Andrew can’t go on, Fletcher ends his place in the band, and Andrew angrily attacks Fletcher.
I lay this entire plot point out to illustrate that the film (or at least this particular chuck of it) has narrative problems. It’s understandable that Fletcher’s character refuses to let Andrew use other sticks (stupid, but understandable). But that Andrew happened to getting a car accident, and happened to be able to crawl out of getting hit by a semi alive, and happened to be able to walk, and happened to be cognizant enough to somewhat function, only to fail? It’s illustrative of Fletcher’s abusive character, sure, but at the cost of narrative believability and coherence.
I do not need to go in detail as to why Fletcher’s deeply physically and emotionally abusive tactics are not good for conducting and teaching. The film even has a key scene early on illustrating that Fletcher can be a nice guy to people, and therefore is intentionally abusing his students as an element of his pedagogy. Fletcher cites a story about Charlie Parker as his justification, that Parker when threatened by violence by a thrown cymbal, provoking him to become a better player. In the above linked article, Richard Brody dispels this myth easily, citing a biography of Parker that describes the scene differently:
“Bird had gotten up there and got his meter turned around,” Ramey remembered. “When they got to the end of the thirty-two-bar chorus, he was in the second bar on that next chorus. Somehow or other he got ahead of himself or something. He had the right meter. He was with the groove all right, but he was probably anxious to make it. Anyway, he couldn’t get off. Jo Jones hit the bell corners—ding. Bird kept playing. Ding. Ding. Everybody was looking, and people were starting to say, ‘Get this cat off of here.’ Ding! So finally, finally, Jo Jones pulled off the cymbal and said ‘DING’ on the floor. Some would call it a crash, and they were right, a DING trying to pass itself as under a crash. Bird jumped, you know, and it startled him and he eased out of the solo. Everybody was screaming and laughing. The whole place.
Fletcher bases his entire method of abuse on a falsehood, a falsehood the film itself never corrects. To think that an audience member might leave the theater thinking this film has some sort of nuance, that “Sure, Fletcher is mean, but his tactics are effective. Just look at that famous jazz story he cites! The film plays with ambiguity!”
But Fletcher’s methods are deplorable. Most notably, his verbal insults are usually homophobic, and in the case of Andrew anti-Semitic. But among a class of mostly black men, Fletcher never uses racist slurs. Yet homophobic slurs are fine in the film. Of course, the only reason Fletcher can use homophobic slurs is because there are no female band members. Forget Jaime Baum.
Fletcher goes beyond the school of tough love into a sadism of sorts that can only bring forth bad fruit. The film does illustrate later that the successful artist Fletcher raised up with his tough love committed suicide; it’s clear the film finds the faults in his method. But the film never offers an alternative either, or presents the standard model(s) of conducting during a rehearsal. At the end of the film, the film portrays Andrew triumphing by showing up, reversing the power dynamic in the performance space. But before then, Andrew hadn’t practiced at all in the span of his removal until that performance. Does this mean Fletcher’s tactics proved effective after all? It’s more difficult to decide, but the film could be read to support that possibility, which is scary. More on that ending later.
Back to conducting styles, the film plays with the notion that Fletcher teaches with though love, but he gets results, however compromised they are, when in reality his entire method of teaching is screwed up. His conducting should be ineffective, as he completely mismanaged the time of his students and of rehearsals.
His method is often to isolate a play or a group of players and have them play the same notes over and over again until they get it right, but he offers no time or help or guidance whatsoever to help them improve. In the first scene where Andrew experiences abuse, all Fletcher says to him is either he is dragging the tempo, or rushing the tempo. But Fletcher never does anything to help him understand further. He never changes tactics, like using a metronome to help grasp the tempo, to telling him to practice on his own more and continue the rehearsal time. Fletcher never understands that he needs to teach people in these moments rather than just yelling at them more for results. But yelling is what he does, along with mocking and threatening his students.
He physically and mentally tortures the three drummers eager to have the main band position for hours at a time, while the rest of the band waits around to start rehearsals. Of course, this is only feasible in the film because the Conservatory is, as I said, a farce. There are no other ensembles that need the room? No other teachers that recognize the blood on the hands and the sweat on their faces as sign for concern? The band does sometimes practice at night, so there’s some narrative convenience there, but it’s ultimately a ludicrous notion.
The idea of rehearsal time is to run through pieces as an ensemble and maximize that time together. Fletcher’s behavior completely ignores this, treating it more as a convenient gathering place to berate individuals before other students. It’s pedagogically bankrupt because it is abusive, but also because it’s musically ridiculous to waste so much time and expect a good group dynamic. Of course, this film totally ignores group dynamics altogether, so this lapse in judgment is par for the course.
Abuse and Power Dynamics
I believe it is realistic in this world to expect the explicitly abusive tactics of Fletcher is grounds for immediate removal from his position. If I am wrong in this I weep for humanity. Because of this, I find this central power dynamic between Fletcher and Andrew to ring false, as it should take place in the real world. In dismissing the film’s central power dynamic, I do not mean to dismiss the abuse in any way at all. Instead, I am outraged.
At the end of the film, the film portrays Andrew triumphing by showing up Fletcher at his own game, reversing the power dynamic in the performance space. The film adds narrative contrivance to the performance, that messing up with forever doom his prospects to be a musician, which is of course not the case. He commands and takes control of the band, cuing in members, forcing Fletcher to go along. By the end of the song, it is clear that Fletcher now has respect for Andrew, and that Andrew has proven himself worth to Fletcher. They end the film in unison, as Fletcher conducts his drumming while Andrew finished his solo.
This is appalling for many ways. It shows Andrew’s thirst for glory and to be the best at its most malignant form. In trying to outperform Fletcher, Andrew shows that he cares about the standards of his abuser. That his opinion matters. That it is valid and important. The ultimate criterion of success for the film is being the best in front for the white privileged audience, and proving your abuser wrong by beating him at his own game.
This is completely messed up.
Working together with a cruel person who wronged you is not healthy or wise. Especially since Fletcher has messed up rules, tormenting Andrew however he can to provoke him further towards greatness. By doing so Andrew gains respect from Fletcher he shouldn’t need, and passes a test (the rich white audience who will always remember your failure) that’s a mere fabrication in the film. No one should have to prove something to their abuser, and by doing so Andrew is possibly even validating Fletcher’s methods within the film’s logic, depending on your interpretation. Terrifying.
The Story In Sum
Andrew states partway through the film that he wants to be famous, and would rather die young and become a legend that grow old and be forgotten. Remarkably, this motivation is not dispelled as you might expect (“learn to love the music, not yourself you egocentric prick!”), but glorified the film. In the spirit of competition, Andrew comes out on top. Mind you this is a story of a white Jewish male excelling in among his primarily black classmates in a musical genre heavily rooted in the black experience. He seems to come from a well off family, but a tense dinner scene where his accolades are overlooked inflate his story to be even more dramatic. It’s all about him, just take a look at the poster.
This ignores the importance and necessity of working together in ensemble music. I do not deny that to be a top notch performer requires a lot of work, and high standards. But surely we can portray a more accurate picture than this film?
The ever eloquent Richard Brody states that “The movie’s very idea of jazz is a grotesque and ludicrous caricature.” I believe that to be the case. I’ll give him the final words here as well, and bid you all good night for now.
Certainly, the movie isn’t “about” jazz; it’s “about” abuse of power. Fletcher could as easily be demanding sex or extorting money as hurling epithets and administering smacks. Yet Chazelle seems to suggest that Fletcher, for all his likely criminal cruelty, has nonetheless forced Andrew to take responsibility for himself, to make decisions on his own, to prove himself even by rebelling against Fletcher’s authority. There’s nothing in the film to indicate that Andrew has any originality in his music. What he has, and what he ultimately expresses, is chutzpah. That may be very helpful in readying Andrew for a job on television. “Whiplash” honors neither jazz nor cinema; it’s a work of petty didacticism that shows off petty mastery, and it feeds the sort of minor celebrity that Andrew aspires to. Buddy Rich. Buddy fucking Rich.