Whiplash an intense emotional experience, a rollarcoaster built on drumbeats, sweat, blood, and screams. It gets into your nervous system. It’s a myth-building movie, not only building the myth of these characters hurtling themselves towards a perception of greatness by sacrificing key parts of their flesh, emotional-well being, and humanity, but also rebuilding the myth of Charlie Parker into something far more soul-gouging that it already was. I saw two movies yesterday. One was the horror film The Babadook, but Whiplash is the one that will probably give me nightmares.
The portrayal of abuse in this movie is astoundingly real, and often ambiguous, but where it counts it doesn’t seem ambiguous enough. Although the writer/director Damien Chazelle says he doesn’t believe that Fletcher’s teaching tactics are the way things should be, his movie tells a different story. Whiplash isn’t a movie about great art, though that’s what it appears to be on the surface, it’s a movie about monsters.
Both Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) and Neiman (Miles Teller) seem to ascribe to the idea that great art can be beaten out of you, can be made only when you sacrifice all relationships in your life, only when you achieve some level of technical acuity even if it damages your body, only after you have been emotionally wounded beyond repair, only after you have given up all manner of comfort or happiness. They seem to believe that this “Great Art” they are going after is the only thing worth going after in life. None of this is true, but the ending hints at a vindication for this erroneous and dangerous belief system.
To make everything even more baffling, they are reaching for transcendent jazz by attempting to drum faster and play with greater technical perfection. Jazz legends, who aren’t being made very much these days, are about style and creativity over form. Neiman bleeds onto his drums, but jazz legends bleed through their songs. Everyone remembers “Bird,” but there is no indication that a modern jazz drummer, especially one whose main goal is to stay on a certain tempo set by a maniacal teacher, could achieve that level of lasting fame. Nevertheless, Neiman tells his family, and his almost girlfriend, that sort of fame is what he wants more than anything. Amy Winehouse is a modern example of a “jazz”-type performer who achieved this type of fame at an early, and tragic, age, but it wasn’t by mastering the perfect pitch. Instead, she stretched her voice and words in unique and sorrowful ways.
At the film’s maddeningly triumphant ending, it seems Neiman understands this, but whatever it was he was seeking through this journey isn’t about fame and notoriety anymore. It’s about pleasing this difficult man, this alternate father who gave him only pain while his real father was offering him a gentle love. He came to associate any degree of comfort, love, and happiness with mediocrity. He was no longer existing in the greater world, where this is not true, but in Fletcher’s world. He got caught in Fletcher’s myth, and sacrificed himself to it.
The level of abuse that Fletcher exacts not only on Neiman, but the rest of his students, is atrocious. He screams bigoted slurs at them, hurls furniture at them, and asks them about their childhood so he can have emotional ammo to blast them with during rehearsals. The games he plays with Neiman are supposed to be molding him into one of the greatest musicians of all time, but in the end he’s only fostered a single-minded obsession.
Fletcher is horrific, but he’s also very real. He was informed by director Chazelle’s experience in high school band, by J.K. Simmons’ experience getting a music degree, and he’s also based on sports coaches. This type of behavior can probably be witnessed in varying levels in any field of performance where skill and endurance must be tested in order to get better. Although these types of methods sometimes wield results, there are far better methods to carve out excellence; far less costly ones.
Writer and director Damien Chazelle agrees, he told The Dissolve, “There’s nothing redeemable in him [Fletcher.] Certainly I think his passion for the music is admirable, and sometimes he gets results, which is admirable, but there’s nothing admirable about the behavior. A lot of that is just pulled from history, what jazz-band leaders have often done. They haven’t exactly been models of progressive politics.” Even though Chazelle makes it clear in The Dissolve interview that he doesn’t believe this is the way it should be done, in the world he creates in the film, it’s the only way to achieve excellence.
I think all art, especially all good art, comes from some kind of suffering. When we create art, we are wrestling with some kind of pain. Even people who have lovely, charmed lives are mired in pain because that’s the human condition. That doesn’t mean you should go out of your way to suffer just so you can be a great artist. If you want to make art, we all have a great well of pain inside to propel our creativity and launch us towards expression and insight. Flannery O’Connor put it pretty succinctly: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
Improving skills is part of great art, though, and recognizing and overcoming weaknesses isn’t an easy or leisurely thing to do. There is a bit of suffering involved in learning, in practicing, in getting better. Being uncomfortable and frustrated, and yearning to push forward is part of the process. Hard work is hard, but punishing yourself, or being punished, is not a necessary part of the process. Having your dignity and humanity tested and stripped away is not part of the process. Being abused, and learning how to abuse, is not part of it.
What makes all this more twisted and grim is that Fletcher’s story about Charlie Parker, the entire mythos that backs up his sadistic methods, is incredibly wrong. His story is not a guidebook, a template to greatness he’s trying to mimic, it is a complete fiction uses to justify his behavior. That this is never addressed in the film may be the biggest problem I have with it, because people like me, who had never heard the story of Jo Johnson, will buy Fletcher’s version and accept it. I did not accept Fletcher’s viewpoint, but I accepted his story at the very least, and that’s a powerful thing.
The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody shared the more legitimate version of the story. “In Fletcher’s telling, Parker played so badly that Jones threw a cymbal at his head, nearly decapitating him. After that humiliation and intimidation, Parker went home and practiced so long and so hard that he came back a year later and made history with his solo,” Brody writes.
Here’s the real story, as related in Stanley Crouch’s recent biography of Parker, Kansas City Lightning. Crouch spoke with the bassist Gene Ramey, who was there. It happened in 1936, and Parker (whose nickname was Bird) was sixteen:
“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.
Crouch adds that, at around this same time, Parker “had a breakthrough,” a musical epiphany that resulted from listening to the solos of the Kansas City-based tenor saxophonist Lester Young (who, later in 1936, joined Basie’s band). Parker found a steady gig with a local band, with whom he performed onstage for many hours every night. Crouch writes that Parker also got serious about music, studying harmony at the piano and spending lots of time listening to other musicians on the radio, including the trumpeter Roy Eldridge and the alto saxophonist Buster Smith. And, yes, Parker did play a historic solo a year later. He showed up at another jam session, in 1937, and, as the trumpeter Oliver Todd told Crouch, “Before the thing was over, all the guys that had rejected him were sitting down with their mouths wide open. I had seen a miracle. I really had. It was something that made tears come down my face.”
This is a much different myth. It’s one about competition, learning, drive, and proving something, but it is not about violence, or stripping down your life to nothing in order to achieve some singular goal. According to this story, Parker opened his life up, he did not close it up as Neiman does. He learned about things outside of his current knowledge, he reached out to others and tested himself by performing on stage with a local band. What he did not do is hole himself away trying to play the same song faster in order impress someone who almost killed him. Yes, Charlie Parker became an addict who destroyed himself, but that wasn’t a necessary part of his genius and legacy.
Whiplash is a difficult film, but it can’t be denied that it is intense and arresting. J.K. Simmons’ performance is as mesmerizing as it is horrific, and the storytelling choices are ruthless. It’s not a film about achieving greatness, it’s a psychological horror film that brings out of the shadows some of the abusive teaching measures that can become rampant in the arts if left unchecked.
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