The Gordon Ramsay of Drumming

Whiplash

 

Tea: Chocolate Ginger Tea

 

A movie with three Oscars lies on the slaughtering block today. And while I am sharpening my knives, I should let you know that I am not that big of a music person. I like music a lot, but cannot work with notes, tempo etc. for the life of me. So whether Whiplash is realistic in terms of musical performance and accuracy is something I cannot and will not cover and aside from my inability to hear a difference in certain pieces it is simply not my main point of interest. There is “plot” written on my knife and the other is labelled as “characters” and those are quite enough for my taste.

Whiplash is the story of two characters. First one is Andrew, a young drummer trying his best at “the best music school of the country” according to his words, I wouldn’t know. He is working really hard on his drumming and drumming extremely fast at that. He then gets recognised by the school’s most notorious teacher Terrance Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons who won an Oscar for the role. Fletcher is known for his absolute perfectionism and rigorous teaching methods that wander the line between encouragement Full Metal Jacket-style and torture. A place in Fletcher’s band can be a ticket to the top and everyone is willing to fight or rather drum for it. Staying in the band and proving this human-rights-disregarding teacher his skill is Andrew’s goal and he is willing to sacrifice everything for it, be it social life or physical well-being only that is not enough for Fletcher.

Brody-Whiplash-1200

– This movie will show you just how creepy bald people can be –

Let’s get the positive things out of the way first. The movie is not bad by any means but there were some things that bothered me more than I would have liked, especially since this movie is widely regarded as nearly perfect. Praise goes of course to J.K. Simmons and his performance as Fletcher which is equal parts intimidating and inspiring which is very difficult to pull off. Simultaneously he can be both the biggest asshole from one perspective and a genius from another. The movie links both of these parts very well together and thus creates a compelling character that is an enjoyment every time he is on screen. Luckily, he is on screen a lot and therefore carries the movie a lot, he is the life force of the film, since all other characters, save for Andrew who we will get to, are the definition of flat characters. Literally no characterisation is used/wasted upon them and while I am generally a fan of well-rounded characters I can understand the decision to reduce it to the core. The director seemed to have been well aware of the presence Simmons has in every scene and therefore included him as much as possible. The movie is difficult to imagine without him.

Whiplash-Scream

– Hell’s Kitchen but with an orchestra. “Your drumming is fucking raaawww!” –

I also really enjoyed the editing which was slick and on point. The interesting aspect of it is how dramatic tension is woven into music performance without the music being particularly tension-building. Rather the opposite is the case since a lot of the pieces played are jazz pieces, but still through smart editing and camera work you will be on the edge of your seat especially during the third act. Herein lies probably the movies biggest achievement overall, since that is something I have rarely seen done so well. The drumming is certainly nice as well, but call me highly uncultured but I do not like drums alone. There is rhythm to it for sure, but it all seems so brutish and lacking depth. Drummers can kill me now, but be aware that I do not like the movie less for it, just something to keep in mind. And the skill shown here is certainly impressive, I suppose…

whiplash-2-xlarge

– I don’t know how common it is to drum your fingers bloody, but we never see his hand bandaged while drumming, so there might be a few errors here and there –

Now comes my favourite part, all the things I didn’t like. It really shocked me that the film was nominated for best screenplay, because this is one badly written movie if you ask me. So spoiler alert ahead, since I can’t explain what bothered me so much without explicitly calling the movie out on it. 3, 2, and 1 here we go: Andrew’s character bothers me a lot, since all of the conflict he gets in is very artificial and contrived and doesn’t work with the overall tone. When he finally gets the chance to play in the band, a dream of his as we can assume from the opening shots, he oversleeps and potentially arrives too late, which does not matter since Fletcher told him to be there 3 hours earlier (which is never explained why), but still the fact that he hasn’t taken every precaution is utterly laughable, since he is portrayed as such a hard-working and dedicated student (that is literally his entire character) and then to make such a comic mistake boarders on irony. A similar story that again has to do with getting somewhere in time is the concert where he drives a bus and said bus breaks down. This is already artificial enough of a conflict to introduce and feels very contrived only for the sake of tension, but then after renting a car he has an accident but still plays his drums after the accident. An accident with a truck I’ll remind you. I am not certain whether than would be physically possible, but that is beside the point. This is such an over the top scenario that no one can and should take seriously, this is almost comic and robs the scene of every possible emotional impact it may or may not have had.

whiplash-miles-teller

– A character I cannot take serious at all due to his convenient stupidity –

It doesn’t help that the script is predicable in regard to every side plot there is, meaning his love interest and his dad, but frankly I cannot even manufacture rage about that, since the ironic tendencies just increase through these scenes. The loss of the folder is another point that is never explained and only cements the fact that conveniences for the sake of the plot wait around every corner. The dinner scene is also laughably over the top pinning the nerdy musician against the high school jocks. I thought we were watching a character drama here? I feel ideology being shoved into my face and in a not at all subtle way. Again, this just subtracts from the overall quality due to the fact that it deprives the character of Andrew any believable substance and turns him into a stereotype and blank slate that could be occupied by a doll emblazoned with the words “young skinny drummer kid”. He has no personality besides wanting to be the best and drumming his hands bloody for it. Yes, that shows his dedication to the cause, but I cannot connect with him at all. He is arrogant and unlikeable in a very capitalistic way. Working, working, working, until no one can surpass you anymore. The American dream really, but presented in such an unlikeable way no one could get inspired by it. Which leads to my biggest problem: the ending.

While I will say that the third act is phenomenal in terms of cinematography and performance. The underlying message is horrifying and nightmarish. The movies central message is that psychological and physical abuse to the point of torture are the necessary instruments to create a genius. A genius with no autonomy anymore. At the end it might seem as though Andrew has overcome his desire to impress Fletcher, but just after he is finished he waits and only after Fletcher gives him the subtle smile indicating his approval he can smile as well. He has lost all sense of identity and only exists in the mind of Fletcher, should he not approve of him his existence would crumble away immediately. His sense of art is non-existent, he has lost all sense of perception and only can recognise his work through Fletcher’s perception. It is entirely pointless whether he played perfectly or not, because he is no longer able to perceive it, just like the fat kid Fletcher kicked out during Andrew’s first session. I can only imagine Andrew meet a similar fate as Fletcher’s other protégé after that. The basic message seems to be: Severe emotional abuse is the only way to get to the top. I do sacrifice and achievement go hand in hand, but not in this traumatic way. It is equally unappealing that the notion of perfection he strives for is a purely technical one. There is no artistic sense in what he is doing, simply a blind ferocity to drum faster than anybody else and keep a rhythm. Difficult as that may be, it is not art in any sense. It is like mastering realistic painting and then just drawing fruit bowls, impressive but ultimately uninspiring in a larger sense. But it falls in line with other forms of entertainment these days. Superhero movie being the prime example of technical achievements over actual substance and games can fall into the same pitfall with shiny graphics and not much beside it.

whiplash-fletcher

Spoilers end here.

All in all I have mixed feeling towards this movie. The central message frightens me, since it validates all the inhuman teaching methods out there and while I understand Fletcher’s point of view I cannot agree with it. Performance and editing wise there is nothing to complain, the writing falls a miles short of what I expected and the main character is unbelievably contrived. People claim it should be judged as a horror movie, but I cannot agree with this classification since there is too many flat out comic moments in it. Then again, maybe I should regards this movies more ironically than it first appears. The way Andrew wants to be acknowledged by Fletcher boarders on Stockholm syndrome leaving the door wide open for any queer reading that may or may not be done in the future. I cannot fully recommend Whiplash since large parts just didn’t appeal to me. If you are into music you will get your kick out of it, but do not take it as gospel. Watch it for the great performance and nothing beside that.

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “The Gordon Ramsay of Drumming

  1. After I watched the movie, I wasn´t quite able to explain quite what was bothering me about it exactly. Your article sums it up brilliantly, though! I can only agree in every single point.
    Save for one.
    Bald. People. Are. Not. Creepy.
    You should talk to someone about it, really.

    Like

    • Glad to be of service.
      No, bald people are universally creepy, you cannot name a single nice bald person. Kratos for instance is a monster, Fletcher no debate about his status, Solas arrogant douchy elf whose model won’t load completely (still). Cannot think of more right now, but I am sure they are out there…polishing their shiny creepy heads.

      Like

  2. Well, I think Kratos is cool, Fletcher is a boss, Solas is sexy as hell and there´s also Vivienne from DAI who is just badass. Hm, I remember that there was also a very intelligent guy who wrote about power relations in society and stuff like that. Pretty famous fella, humanist, gay… can´t remember his name, though. Something French. Guess what: also bald.

    Like

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