arts / Film / jazz / Movietime

Whiplash – will you clean the blood off my drum set?

“It’s now time to close. I hope you’ve had as much fun as we have. Don’t forget the jam session Sunday. Mandy Tension will be by, playing his xylophone troupe. It’ll be a lot of fun.
“Monday night is the dance contest night. Twist contest. We give away peanut butter and jelly.
“I hope we’ve played your requests, the songs you like to hear.
“Last call for alcohol. Drink it up folks. Wonderful. ‘Nice to see you Bob. How’s it going? Wonderful. Nice to see you. Oh ‘Bill Bailey’? We’ll get to that tomorrow. ‘Caravan’ with the drum solo? Right. We’ll do that. Wonderful. Nice to see you again. Yeh, la la la. Down at the Pompadour A-go-go.
“Night all.”

Frank Zappa: America Drinks and Goes Home

Zappa never actually gave us Caravan with a drum solo, but Buddy Rich had already done it in 1962:

which makes the 9¼min version in this movie somewhat redundant.

In fact, Rich recorded it with Harry James back in 1956, but we won’t count that, since he was constrained then by the limitations of the 78rpm single (if you want to you can see and hear a live James/Rich video on Youtube HERE).

Film critics have been raving over this movie ever since it was first released, Stateside, at the beginning of 2014. The audience at the Picturehouse “preview” (almost a year later) gave it a round of applause at the end. It’s certainly gripping, the interplay between J.K. Simmons’ martinet music teacher (who never seems to do any teaching) and Miles Teller’s put-upon victim are reminiscent of  Ronald Lee Ermey’s performance as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket.

You are a worthless pansy-ass who is now weeping and slobbering all over my drumset like a nine year old girl!

Supposedly, director/scriptwriter Damien Chazelle drew upon the Kubrick film, as well as his own experiences in a high school jazz band, for his original 18-minute short which won plaudits at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and attracted the $3.3 million budget for the full-length version.

Miles Teller did all the playing in the movie, and he’s certainly captured the sound and fury of a certain kind of percussioning. Chazelle himself was just as demanding as Fletcher in the film, reportedly never shouting CUT so Teller would continue playing even though the cameras had stopped rolling.

But everything about the film gave me a serious sense of déja vue. It was not just that musically, it was a bit past its sell-by date. Where did it stand in relation to developments in big-band jazz, like Don Ellis’s quasi-Indian time signatures (everything played was in four/four, though the phrasing cut across barlines most of the time to disguise the fact) and Gil Evans’ charts for Miles Davis? The drumming, too, was stuck in a particular time frame, today long past.

I’ve had the great privilege of knowing some of the world’s greatest drummers, from Max Roach to Levon Helm.

Not forgetting Buddy Rich himself, and his magisterial direction of the band when I heard them in Birmingham many years ago. Rich never told the band what came next in the set, their only clue being the the different rhythms he’d play between tunes. He even, wickedly, sometimes changed his mind halfway through that intro, forcing the band members to search for the music anew

I’ll never forget Roach’s demonstration of how much less, is more by playing a solo of great fluency and melodic innovation on a single hi-hat. Nor his affirmation that every beat of a solo must relate to the notes and changes of the tune as closely as those of any of the horn players. It’s only when, long after the opening drum solo and haldf-way through the tune, we recognise it as Duke Ellington’s Caravan.

Even the first of the great show-off percussionists, Gene Krupa, laid down some beautifully laid-back rhythms on the 1937 Benny Goodman small-band recordings, like The Man I Love.

None of the three drummers portrayed ever use anything other than sticks in this film, crash-bang-walloping all over the kit. Yet even Buddy Rich made an entire album where he only played with wire brushes.

And for a movie supposedly depicting the obsessions of anyone aspiring to follow in the footsteps of Bird, we never ever saw these guys jamming together. We got no sense of them actually enjoying their chosen careers. (When – spoiler alert – Fletcher ends up playing in a small band gig after getting canned from his teaching because of his bullying ways, it was interesting that he eschewed any of the flash of his big-band work with some very nice piano.)

But it is not only musically that the movie is seriously outdated. Its whole ethos is rooted in the Byronic myth of the self-destructive Victorian superman. There’s an interesting interchange between Andrew and his family:

ANDREW: I think being the greatest musician of the 20th century is anybody’s idea of success.
JIM: Dying broke and drunk and full of heroin at the age of 34 is not exactly my idea of success.
ANDREW: I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34 and have people at a dinner table talk about me than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was.

Fletcher identifies himself with drummer Jo Jones, who according to the movie nearly decapitated Charlie Parker by throwing his cymbal at him, causing Bird to go away and practice more before he ventured out musically again. But as Forrest Wickman has pointed out in Slate, that isn’t exactly what happened. According to Stanley Crouch’s Kansas City Lightning, Joines habitually used a “ding” on his cymbal bell to indicate to a soloist that it was time for him to go.

Parker ignored the signal, so Jo Jones threw his cymbal to the floor.

Bassist Gene Ramey chided Bird for the lack of confidence which had caused him to lose his way in the tune.

BIRD: I got messed up. I just ran my cycles wrong, and I must have rushed it or something.

RAMEY: You’ve got to stop playing like you’re so anxious, because if you’re so anxious like that you’re sure to get ahead of them.

So the lesson of the Jo Jones incident is not that yelling at people (or throwing your cymbal at them) spurs them on to greater things – in Fletcher’s words,” I was there to push people beyond what’s expected of them. I believe that’s an absolute necessity.” – but that what nurtures budding genius is supportive understanding, such as Ramey gave Bird and which helped him to achieve greatness.
I have pointed to the film’s musical and philosophical weakness because it has received such uncritical critical praise. That doesn’t mean I think it is a bad movie. Editor Tom Cross has cut the shots of Teller’s drumming brilliantly to the crash of the percussion, and though it can be a bit of a gruelling experience, cinematically it is well worth seeing.

Just don’t expect to come away from it knowing anything more about jazz, or the experience of being a jazz musician.

  • Whiplash has limited UK cinema release up to February 26.

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