Whiplash doesn’t have a problem with jazz

Spoiler warning: This article contains a discussion of most of the plot of Whiplash and a suggestive reference to the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Richard Brody wrote an uncharitable review of the movie Whiplash, originally titled “’Whiplash’ Gets Jazz All Wrong” but later titled “Getting Jazz Right in the Movies”. The article offers little in the way of the correct portrayal of jazz, but is sure to point out that Whiplash’s jazz is a “grotesque and ludicrous caricature.” The problem is that Whiplash isn’t really about jazz, any more than Amadeus is a biography of Mozart. Brody acknowledges as much near the end of his review, and yet does nothing with this information. He is, of course, entitled to misunderstand a film and it need not provoke any comment, but I seem to run into more people who to think Whiplash is “about jazz” than don’t, even if they ultimately enjoy the film more he did. As it happens, Brody’s misunderstanding is a useful framing for getting the most out of Whiplash, and so will serve as a ladder we can safely kick away upon arriving at our destination.

Brody establishes his jazz bona fides by criticizing the protagonist, Andrew Neiman’s, worship of Buddy Rich. Jazz is a massive subject to study. The Wikipedia entry runs some 16,000 words and includes about 22 sections dedicated to styles. Apple Music’s Jazz category has 31 essentials playlists dedicated to genres, 11 essentials playlists dedicated to specific instruments, and 18 dedicated to specific regions. I do like Jazz, but would not necessarily want to get into a trivia contest with Brody, a self-described “jazz obsessive”, and am in no position to evaluate Buddy Rich’s status in jazz history but, fortunately, there is no need to. Damien Chazelle, the writer/director of Whiplash drew from his high school jazz experience, and Miles Teller, the actor who plays Andrew, was also a musician. The character was written as someone who idolizes Buddy Rich, the actor portrayed the character as such, and both have at least a working knowledge of the subject. It is at this point an audience member needs to decide whether to sulk because the film chose the wrong jazz, or to get on board and see where the story is going.

I highlight the Buddy Rich complaint not only because Brody begins and ends his review with it, but because it also highlights the different ways to watch a film. A viewer may take an inaccuracy or disagreement personally and shut off from the film. This seems like an unedifying way to watch movies since part of the enjoyment is getting swept up in them and seeing something new. For instance, if we accept that the Buddy Rich complaint is not a critic’s snobby attempt to gatekeep a young filmmaker, but is actually a shibboleth to identify Whiplash as the biggest square imaginable and banish it from any comment on jazz, Andrew’s choice of idols is still central to the film, and the choice of Buddy Rich reveals something about his character.

If Buddy Rich is not an appropriate role model for a true jazz musician, why might Andrew idolize him? Brody’s assessment of Buddy Rich is that he is “A loud and insensitive technical whiz, a TV personality, not a major jazz inspiration.” Andrew’s technical prowess is present from the opening moments of the film, and his desire for fame and attention become apparent as the film goes on. Brody’s review points out Fletcher’s use of an ethnic slur against Andrew, who is Jewish. So is Rich. While this may be another reason for Andrew’s attachment to the drummer, it is Fletcher’s abuse that becomes more interesting. If Buddy Rich is an inappropriate Jazz idol, then it provides some insight into just how targeted and devastating Fletcher’s abuse becomes. Moments before Fletcher reveals his abusive nature, he offers the compliment “We’ve got Buddy Rich here.” Fletcher’s abuse is perfectly calibrated to target the insecurities of each of his victims. This is on full display in the five-hour competition over the double time swing. If the compliment is “We’ve got Art Blakey here” (or whatever name would satisfy Brody as sufficiently cool) it is a generic compliment to soften anyone up. Fletcher’s compliment is tailored specifically for Andrew and it is employed to utterly devastate the student moments later. The compliment demonstrates that Fletcher is musically sophisticated enough to identify Andrew’s musical influences, as well as psychologically adroit through his ability to use that knowledge to become the ultimate bully.

What is frustrating about Brody’s focus on Buddy Rich is that it comes so close to what is a central theme of Whiplash: the choice of mentors. If Buddy Rich is all flash and no substance then it is certainly reflected in Andrew, who becomes increasingly unpleasant as he comes closer to his goal. The longer Andrew stays in studio band and under the influence of Fletcher, the meaner he is. The dinner guests bragging about their minor accomplishments are obnoxious, but Andrew escalates the situation and, much like Fletcher, strikes at the seat of the guests’ insecurity. His sharing and appreciation of jazz at the pizza joint (at least hinting at a contradiction to Brody’s claim that there is no “wide-ranging appreciation of jazz history”) with his date turns into a single-minded pursuit leading to her neglect and abandonment. Rich may be an unsuitable jazz idol for Andrew, but Fletcher is worse and he is able to use that foundation to erect an even greater alter to himself with a decidedly Old Testament flavour: a lot of rules, and no mercy.

Why does Fletcher do this? Brody objects to both justifications Fletcher uses. Before the first rehearsal Fletcher shares an anecdote about Charlie Parker’s humiliation at Jo Jones stopping him by throwing a cymbal. Fletcher’s rendition is inaccurate — the cymbal was thrown on the floor — and there is a danger of assigning too much importance to this event in terms of Parker’s subsequent development. This would be a problem if we expected Fletcher to be an accurate source of information, but why should we expect this character to convey information in anything but a self-serving manner? The story is told shortly before the practice that will have Fletcher throw a chair at Andrew’s head. The story appears the way that it does because Fletcher is priming his victim for the abuse he is about to deliver.

The more memorable justification is when “the diabolical character [is given] his due, and it’s utter, despicable nonsense.” This is in reference to the “Good job” speech, warning Andrew about complacency. The criticism of the speech is harsher than the cymbal exaggeration, and yet it contains the same error. Fletcher is no more an authority on moral conduct than Jordan Belfort is in The Wolf of Wall Street (Brody’s review says it “… may be Scorsese’s most fully realized movie…”). Like any good villain, Fletcher has a certain draw, and audiences may even agree with his outlook given how entrenched the stereotype of the suffering artist is. However, given that the context of the speech is the final trap he lays for Andrew, there is evidence within the film to doubt this advice, even if Fletcher himself may believe it.

The costs of choosing the wrong mentors could not be clearer in the film. The further Andrew falls under Fletcher’s influence, the more unpleasant self-destructive he becomes. While Andrew is in studio band, Fletcher demonstrates more humanity than his student does. Fletcher has friends, and is capable of engaging their child. He may have self-interested reasons to be distraught and express some kind of remorse for his Sean Casey’s (his earlier student) suicide, but this alone cannot explain his decision to play the student’s recording to the studio band and talk about his rise from struggling with scales to becoming a beautiful player. The emotion is genuine, like the loss of a child, and is unlike the anger and jealousy that have become Andrew’s core.

What does this all lead to? Whether one feels Whiplash is “… a work of petty didacticism…” or a good flick, it seems churlish to deny, as Brody does, that Andrew’s final performance is anything but an example of how music can be filmed in a way that is itself “… musical, that conjure a musical feeling above and beyond what is on the soundtrack…”. The final performance is phenomenal, and the worst possible thing that can happen to Andrew. Andrew’s father’s expression is not one of pride but of dread. He is losing his son. By the end of the performance Andrew is completely lost. He may have the appearance of independent action, but he has internalized Fletcher’s lessons and is completely in his thrall. He is a beautiful player.

We should ask ourselves whether or not Fletcher’s smile is worth it. Why should we seek the approval of people like Fletcher? It is alarmingly easy to take up role models who are unworthy of us, even if they accomplish great things. The complacency of a generic good job is nowhere near as damaging as a good job from the wrong mentor. Fletcher’s cataclysmic charisma and our predisposition towards the images of the suffering artist and the enfant terrible make it easy to fall into the same trap that Andrew does, but Whiplash tells us everything we need to know about the cost of doing so. Andrew is Winston Smith at the end of Nineteen Eighty-Four. He is completely possessed by his antagonist, and the story has already told us his fate, even if we’ve forgotten by the time the credits roll.

Audiences looking to be turned off by jazz need look no further than reviews like Brody’s. Up to this point I’ve tried to meet the review on its own terms by allowing that it may be right on the Jazz, even if it is not relevant to the film. In truth, the review is snobbish and misleading. Jazz is no more immune to musicians behaving badly than any other genre. One of my favourites is Charles Mingus whose reputation as “The Angry Man of Jazz” is so established that it has its own section on Wikipedia. Buddy Rich who, despite Brody’s disdain, is a well regarded and influential drummer, was recorded delivering volcanic rant at his fellow musicians (which Jerry Seinfeld used as an inspiration for his sitcom). Miles Davis’ acts of domestic abuse are found in his autobiography. Not only do the actions in Whilplash have historical precedent, in the case of the Buddy Rich tapes they enhance our understanding of the main character and their idol.

Brody’s distain for the characters is clear and his scorn for their choice of music is apparent, but the rest of the film’s score is conspicuously absent from his review. “Caravan”, recorded by names like Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Art Tatum, among many others, is “mediocre jazz”? “Whiplash”, the song from which the film takes its name, is a rarer piece, but contains an unusual 7/4 time signature, presumably should appeal to the jazz mavens in the audience. Two examples may not make a strong case, but there is a reason there is only two: the film could only afford so many pieces of music. The song Andrew identifies on his first date doesn’t exist outside the Whiplash soundtrack. The fact nobody noticed tells us the filmmakers understand music just fine. Viewers like Brody will not be satisfied with anything short of a jazz hagiography where all the characters say “daddy-o” and there are just enough deep cuts to out the proles in the audience. The appropriate vehicle for such a project is a record collection and a living room large enough to house all the other unsmiling doctrinaires.

If you want to learn about jazz, listen to jazz. In this, Whiplash isn’t a bad place to start. I didn’t know about Hank Leavy’s “Whiplash” before watching the film, but I like unusual time signatures (“Just Like You Imagined” isn’t jazz, but it’s a great example) and so found something new to check out. Do you like the drum solo at the end? Look up “Caravan” and you’ll find Charly Antolini delivering a live performance just as good as Andrew’s, and without the benefit of a film to back him up. Whatever you do, don’t let a whiner like Richard Brody tell you what is and isn’t jazz. If Whiplash hasn’t convinced you of the danger of the wrong mentor, at least do it because Brody probably complains about Starbucks jazz albums as much as Fletcher does.

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