Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Whiplash...a film with neck-snapping implications?

Finally saw Whiplash, becoming the last jazz fan (and erstwhile jazz musician) in America to do so, apparently. Before all else, I must commend the film for its portrayal of true jazz, rather than the dumbed-down, "Starbuckian," Kenny G-inflected version that's (a) maligned in the film and (b) present in too many movies that use jazz, or the jazz world, as a venue or back-story. It's the finest portrayal of the medium and the music since Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues, and surely is a better primer in jazz than Lee's film, as Whiplash is less about the lifestyle and more about the idiom's technical core. All in all I rate it a brilliant film that easily transcends its minor flaws. 

In particular, aside from the obviousthe disturbingly hypnotic, Oscar-winning performance of J. K. SimmonsI must credit the direction of Damien Chazelle and the cinematography of Sharone Meir for sustaining the film's claustrophobic, OCD intensity scene after scene, rim shot after rim shot. The script is also generally wonderful, though it was a serious blunder to name the [spoiler alert] former student/tragic foil Sean Casey; the name will be a source of unintended humor for those who also happen to be baseball buffs, as it conjures images of the forever-grinning ex-first baseman for the Cincinnati Reds. A terrible fit with the Casey character's purpose in the film and the mood at the moment of his introduction.

He of the omnipresent grin.
(See how the pic of the real Sean Casey colors the feel of this post? That's a little bit how it is in the flick, too, alas.)

As to content: As both a musician and a man, I found the film alternately exhilarating and shattering. To be sure, it raises any number of questions about the nature and costs of success, and those questions force me to revisit, if not necessarily modify, some of my prior thoughts/assumptions.

However, I will concede here for the first timeremember where you read thisthat the ubiquitous mantra NEVER GIVE UP YOUR DREAMS! is indeed an appropriate message for the small handful of people who never should give up their dreams...which is to say, those who are destined to rise to the top of the field in which their dreams are set. We don't want those people giving up along the way. We want them to leap smoothly over every hurdle, to blow off all of the early criticism, to keep forging ahead even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. So, yes, we want them to be prodded to continue by those, like Terence Fletcher, in positions of influence. 

Therefore, I can see someone asking, Well, if we don't know who's destined for greatness, shouldn't we cheer on everyone? (Answer: Still no. For the reasons I've amply cited, in my recent New York Daily News piece and too many other places to list, including an entire chapter in SHAM.)

Other questions that occur: 

Does the end justify the means, if the end is greatness?

Will Fletcher's means reliably get a person to the desired end? I.e., is there a method to his sadomasochistic madness?

I'm not sure. How many people who have greatness within them might actually be discouraged from staying the course (if not traumatized forevermore) by a teacher like the bullying, profane, utterly implacable Terence Fletcher? Chazelle anticipates this question and seeks to answer it in the bar scene, late in the movie, where Fletcher states, "If he's the next Charlie Parker he wouldn't be discouraged." But creatives are often sensitive types, not all of whom will be motivated by the chair-hurling, fire-and-brimstone antics of a Terence Fletcher. 

Or let me put that another way: Some of them would be so terrified of the man and his methods that they list their drum kits on eBay the night of the first band class. I know personally of two very talented people, one who gave up music and one who gave up sports, because they simply could not deal with the over-the-top behavior of their teacher and coach, respectively.'s the rub: But was Fletcher ultimately right? Does the fact that they gave up indicate ipso facto that they didn't have what it takes? Does true greatness require, along with talent and effort, a warrior spirit?

Can we know? Isn't this at the last a little bit like the old question about whether the light in the fridge actually goes off when you close the door? Or the (non-GEICO) tree in the forest? In an unforgiving, brutally competitive realm like jazz, do you need to be able to survive a trial by fire in order to reach the pinnacle, in order to be motivated enough to reach deep inside you and unearth that last, most original grace note? 

Any thoughts? 

OK, I have one final thought. As a man who, in his youth, spent much time in both the band room and the locker room, I wondered why Whiplash's most dominant theme, other than the pursuit of musical genius, was its gay-bashing, which—at least in my experienceis far more typical of locker room than band room. I wonder about this especially in light of the distinct homo-eroticism of the movie's final scene, as Fletcher, now clearly won over, urges Andrew toward the climax of his renegade drum solo. 

Your take?


My jazz is real too said...

I saw your tweets which led me to your blog, and I have to say I think people like you are a large part of the reason why jazz struggles to find a mainstream audience. You really need to stop this snobbish stuff about whose music is "real" and whose isn't. I grew up on Kenny G's music and though it's fair to say I've gone far beyond that in my own tastes I still listen to him and find his playing pleasant. He probably has done more single-handedly to expand jazz's public profile than anyone else I can think of. You really think jazz would even be relevant at all anymore if all people had to listen to was Ornette Coleman? Even Herbie Hancock had to release fusion albums to make a living, and he too got a lot of people listening who wouldn't otherwise.

While I'm on the subject who are you to decide what jazz makes the cut? I liked the music in Whiplash but I have a friend who makes the same complaints about the Whiplash score that you make about "Starbuckian" jazz, he thought it was behind the times and that for all the focus on jazz drumming, even the drumming sounded old-fashioned. Let's face it, does anyone even listen to Buddy Rich anymore? As for the other big name in the film, Charlie Bird Parker, he's been dead for decades. I think you should consider whether you live in a glass house before you start throwing stones that only help keep people away from great music that has many individual styles.

renee james said...

Part 1 of a long-ish comment Steve:
I raised a few artists….two musicians in particular who as adults are pursuing their dreams. Here’s how I feel about the whole enterprise and what I know as their loving mom:

First and always, they are talented, even gifted and singular in many ways. They have been recognized by “outsiders,” meaning people who hear and judge and otherwise have objective standards about who has the chops and who doesn’t, and the feedback and encouragement along the way has indicated they both have strong proficiencies and unquestioned ability. And – without knowing quite how to put this – they both have artistry. Which is SO MUCH MORE than hitting the notes or playing the music. It’s the wave of emotion and the feeling of connection they evoke in people who hear them perform. Yes, technique matters – enormously. The interpretive and signature nuance that emerges once someone has mastered technique is what sets any artist apart IMO.

One of them has earned a Master’s Degree in his specialty – from an elite, selective and pressure-filled competitive institution that had its share of Whiplash-type moments, albeit not as violent I would hope. The other is also trained but not to that level. Both of them are working it. Have the day jobs but both are trying to get the gigs, get the job, get the role, play the clubs, get some traction and carve out a living.

Second: there are millions of people like them. Maybe not identically like them but near enough. They’ve all met the same criteria and are all just as passionate.

Third: I’m not in charge of whether or not they make living with their music. The marketplace will determine who does and who doesn’t. Is that entirely fair? Nope. There are spectacularly talented electricians, bus drivers and teachers who write in something other than “performer” on their 1040s each year. They had Plan B. They didn’t keep going (for whatever reason.) They chose a different direction.

Fourth – and final: I have no earthly idea what makes the difference. I suspect it’s an amalgam of the following: Family who recognizes value in the arts, and supports the education and interest from the start. For musicians, it’s good teachers who drive you, make you better, encourage you, force you to stretch and make something you think sounds perfect sound better. Demonstrating the right sound at the right time in front of the right people at the right audition. The connection you make that turns out to be an agent’s assistant who heard you one Thursday night in a club you played at the last minute. The indefatigable enthusiasm that gets you up and out to every open call, every open mike, every opportunity you can find to try again and be heard. The commitment you’ve made to always training; always getting better; always practicing. The communities you make your own. Friends and other artists who influence you and support you. The website. The you tube channel. The facebook page. The “brand” you’re putting together to promote yourself. Taking rejection. Taking a chance. Looking for luck. For coincidence. For an accidental gift. RELENTLESSLY DOING VERY HARD WORK.

Getting the job may be the hardest part of the whole thing. And having your “get by” job that supports you in pursuit of the dream is critical.

renee james said...

Part 2!

Is there a flashing sign that says: “Time to quit?” No. Is there a cosmic number of “no’s” you need to hear before you hear “yes?” I don’t know – maybe. Are there thousands of musicians making a living – writing in “musician” on that 1040 – that I’ve never heard of and never will? Absolutely, yes.

I don’t know if the person who walks away could never be the next Charlie Parker or Pavarotti or Beck simply because he walks away. In the movie, Andrew had a moment where he realized he gave up a positive personal relationship that – by the way – probably would not have diminished his musicianship. In fact, she may have been inspiring. (To me, the idea of the artist who is simply too precious for the world is annoying.)

I always wonder – when do you know what you know is true? I’ll use Springsteen as my example: At some point, early in his career, he and his band were exactly as good as any number of other performers around them. Just exactly as good and as driven and as enthusiastic. When did they reach that moment when they were “better?” When they knew they had a sound that would set them apart? When they decided that the day jobs weren’t going to work out anymore and they had to be all in or get out? How risky was it? How confident was he? That this was the group of guys who would make the difference. That these were the musicians who would become his family, his home, his life…for decades. What if they were all wrong? I’d love to ask him one day.

I believe this is true: Anyone pursuing an artistic passion has a fire inside that the rest of us don’t have. They know it’s the longest shot in the world. They know they have countless hurdles and unbelievable competition to overcome to have their moment. And then they have to keep going and string those moments into a career. You either want to embrace the messiness of it, the uncertainty and non-guarantee-ness of it, the condescending “grow-up” attitudes that may surround you…or you don’t.

All this to say: nice post, Steve. Thanks for sharing your reaction to the film and posing some questions.

Steve Salerno said...

Renee, "To me, the idea of the artist who is simply too precious for the world is annoying." Love it! And I know exactly what you mean. I think you also hit the nail on the head with the "RELENTLESSLY DOING HARD WORK" part, which deserves to be in all caps; that's the part too many of today's entitled millennials seem to overlook (though one hates to force a generational overlay onto the topic).

But...Sprinsteen? Springsteen? The Kenny G of rock? (OK, never mind.)

Overall, thank you so much for these thoughtful and detailed comments, which are typically compelling in their blend of the personal and the political/philosophical (for what that's worth coming from me). I wish I had time to give them the response that they deserve (not that you need a response from me to validate what you wrote), but it's a bit crazed around here.

Geez, do I sound sufficiently codependent with all my disclaimers?

been there said...

I don't think there's any middle ground in this discussion. You can't beat talent into people. I suppose in a so-called sport like boxing you can make someone mean as hell so he goes ballistic on his opponent as soon as the bell rings but how can you possibly talk about bullying or terrorizing someone into being better at something. Plus what are you left with even if you succeed, probably a neurotic if not pathological basket case.

Like the debate over torture it's just the wrong way to do things.

Jeffrey Peterson said...


Are you living your dreams?

I am raising three kids, one finished college, one halfway, another in middle school.

My upbringing was to have a family, and it was to be my ultimate happiness. It's great, we are healthy, happy, and get along great, but it's not what my church and parents promised me.

I sell health insurance, last 21 years, but I love to speak, tell stories, teach. Insurance, Gawd!

I was sold the altruistic religious, serve others, and have a huge family, purpose of life formula. Be a doormat, basically. I did most of what I've done because of that.

Honestly, I have an amazing spouse, who fills every desire I could dream to ask for, and my kids amaze me, but I let my dream go, and it burns.

Just saying, to you, that your work has impressed me because I have also bought the SHAM bullshit, as most people my age have done, and been saddened that my life isn't as amazing as they say it could be if I bought the next date with destiny.

Are you living your dream? Is writing what you wanted to do? You're very interesting to me, even though criticism is unpopular, your revelations helped me tremendously.

I hope to read more from you, SHAM is one of my favorite books.

Steve Salerno said...

Jeffrey, your comment seems ambivalent to in one sense you're grateful you lived the "practical" life, yet in another sense you wish you'd pursued some (unnamed) dream of yours. As noted in the post, I sometimes have mixed emotions on that myself; certainly they're more mixed than they were when I first wrote the book. And thank you also for your kind words about SHAM.

(Maybe we're all ambivalent on that score.)

Writing was indeed my dream, and I still love it. Daily. The thrill of seeing my words take shape and resemble (at least to a fair degree) what I conceptually had in mind when I started is unmatched by just about anything else in life; some would criticize me for saying that--and my family might feel slighted--but it's true. My No. 1 dream has always been either (a) writing or (b) hitting the best pitcher's best fastball. Getting a bit old for the latter now.

And yet at the same time I am a textbook example of what can happen--to those in your orbit--when you get caught up in your dream. I've enjoyed success--more of it than the average writer, especially if you go by my ability to have my work featured in the publications I always admired. But that passion has come at the cost of security. Though I can't complain about the money I've made overall, it has been a boom-or-bust life, and 30 years of it has made my poor wife a neurotic mess. If I had to do it over, would I have gotten my electrician's license instead? Sold health insurance? At times I don't know.

I've made peace with the fact that I will probably never have a retirement in the traditional sense. But was it fair to make that decision on behalf of my family as well?

Henriette said...

This post reminds me of how much heat I got for telling my students in a creative writing class to either put their writing out there or just keep writing in their journals. Many snowflakes cried about and complained to my dean about my "insensitivity," which I never apologized for. I firmly believe that if you believe in your art---you got to take the heat.
When I was getting my MFA, many moons ago, I had a thesis advisor who I thought was Satan's sister. I had to defend my writing and what I was writing about, but I'm a much more confident writer because of it.
Being an artist isn't just about being "good," but about understanding your art and what you are trying to convey.
Beethoven was very misunderstood in the beginning, especially in comparison to Mozart, but he kept going because he believed in his music. Even if he couldn't physically hear it. This is also true for Ernest Hemingway, who just kept writing the way he wanted and needed to.
If you cannot defend your art, then you are not an artist to me.

Steve Salerno said...

Henriette, long time no talk! Thank you for weighing in. "Snowflakes." Love it.