When I was 18 years old, I quit university to dedicate myself to music exclusively. I had been studying piano and cello since I was 8 or 9, but had only gotten more seriously interested, if not confident, as I got older. I studied at the Conservatory of Music in Maracaibo (Venezuela), a revered institution among all musicians in the city. Apart from some serious heartbreak that I was going through at the time, those months of intense focus and dedication to my instruments were some of the most satisfying of my life. I gave myself a rigorous practice schedule and I took to it almost immediately. Discipline can give you great pleasure, in particular through the feeling of mental and physical control it gives you. Every day, the slowly won victories–mastering a difficult exercise, moving from painfully learning a piece to being able to play it with feeling–gave me hope and kept me going.
Whiplash, a new movie by Damien Chazelle, tells the story of Andrew Neiman, a young drummer striving for greatness at a prestigious jazz music school. It explores in detail–at times even gory detail—what it takes to achieve that control, that harmony of mind and body required to master an instrument to the point of transcendence. It also tells the story of his teacher, Terence Fletcher, a jazz band leader intent on having only the best students of the school under his tutelage. He is known for eavesdropping on the students’ practice sessions and plucking new “lucky” hopefuls from the junior bands to have a shot on his.
After catching the ear of Fletcher during the opening scene of the movie, Andrew is finally given the chance to join his band as the alternate drummer. It doesn’t take long for Andrew to discover that being chosen by Fletcher may not be as much of a dream, but a nightmare, as he reveals his ruthless, cruel, and torturous techniques during practice.
But Andrew loves music, he loves drums, and he is confident; not so much on his abilities as a drummer as in his capacity to overcome difficult challenges. So he stays and accepts the humiliations and the cruelty. He moves into his practice studio, cuts off all social distractions, and plays until he bleeds. In the already sequestered world of the music conservatory, he becomes a prisoner of his own obsession. As a narrative, this is both compelling and troubling. It shows, somewhat realistically, what it takes to master an instrument and that talent alone is not enough. Practice, perseverance and plain hard work are the way to do it. But it also goes a bit too far, as far as to remove any semblance of artistry and purpose to the making of music and art.
Fletcher’s philosophy is that in order to achieve greatness among his students, he must push them to their limit. Only those that are pushed to the limit-and are still able to come back-can become great. A good philosophy perhaps, if tempered by a greater purpose, that of ultimately creating music that has meaning, music that connects them to the world and to other people. But the movie gets this wrong. Although this may be Fletcher’s ultimate goal, the script doesn’t make this evident. What it makes evident is his pleasure in torturing his drummers during a long practice session where they are only allowed to play two bars, get them right on his count, or cede their place to the other player. This is how they must earn the right to play the part. This may be a flaw in the writing more than in the philosophy it wants to present. The result is that a movie about music, in particular about jazz music, doesn’t seem to get the point about music at all.
Substitute the drums with a swimming pool, or a running track and Fletcher by a coach yelling “faster, faster, faster!” and you get the same effect. As a musician teaching other young, aspiring players, Fletcher categorically fails. His level of cruelty, and more importantly, lack of concern for actually teaching his students about feeling, meaning or dynamics, weaken the story. So do other plot turns near the end of the movie which take the story beyond the limits of credibility. It greatest flaw may be that it excludes all pleasure from the process of making music, both for Andrew and the other terrified musicians in the band.
Still, despite its core, central flaw, for somebody who loves music and movies, Whiplash remains a gorgeous film to watch. And although Andrew’s experience at school is certainly nightmarish, the cinematography, the editing and the score still manage to lovingly capture that world. Warm brass instruments and cymbals shine in the semi-darkened rooms of the conservatory, and the beautiful score seamlessly blends with the jazz standards featured along the way. Also cool is dazzling editing that echoes Andrew’s playing and the dynamics of the musical numbers. For me though, the biggest pleasure of all is the movie’s focus on the drums. And this is very personal, because I love drums. I love their high visual aesthetic quality, their endless musical possibilities and sounds, and the athletic-like endurance and skill required to play them. I love the high level of physicality and showmanship that is intrinsic to the instrument, even in the most subtle of players. A movie about drums is almost automatically compelling to me.
In the end, perhaps Whiplash was not intended to be a realistic portrayal of the competitive jazz music world. Perhaps it was intended to work more as a metaphor, as the realization of a fantasy, especially on its exhilarating closing scene. The fantasy it portrays is having the ability to perform, to overcome the fear and the physical shortcomings, to be able to express yourself freely and completely through music and become one with your instrument. The fantasy is transcendence.