Front Row at the Movies
"Whiplash" Seen From A Professional Viewpoint
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
When reviewing films that are about a specialized activity -- like music, for instance -- a critic must ask himself if he’s qualified to comment on a subject where he or she has little expertise. Sure, we understand what makes a good film. And we all walk away knowing whether we’ve been entertained or not. But how well did the director or screenwriter portray the subject?
"Whiplash" -- still playing at the Tropic Cinema -- is a film like that, a tense drama between a young jazz drummer and his tough-than-toenails teacher. Wondering how realistic it is, I decided to call on an expert, a jazz percussionist you may have seen play around town, Hal Howland.
After viewing the film, he commented: "As a portrayal of a young man trying to realize his potential despite self-defeating work habits and the damaging influence of a sadistic teacher, the award-winning ‘Whiplash’ is a success. But the film’s outrageous vision of life in a music conservatory nullifies its apparently sincere message.
"As a drummer, young Miles Teller (who shines in the teen romance ‘The Spectacular Now’) is a fine actor: Teller obviously can play some of the furious drumming heard on the soundtrack, though nearly all of it is mimed on screen. The film’s depiction of the pressure teachers and judges place on drummers at college jazz-band competitions is not far off the mark: being a big-band drummer, charged with keeping eighteen freewheeling musicians together through incessant changes in mood, tempo, dynamics, and meter can be a bit like driving a crowded bus through a blizzard.
"And Damien Chazelle’s fast-paced direction provides some dazzling close-ups of musicians and their shiny instruments. (The saturated product placement of second-rate musical equipment suggests that the major manufacturers declined to associate themselves with this project.)
"But the bombastic performance of J. K. Simmons (hilarious in the Coen brothers’ spy spoof ‘Burn after Reading’) as a vulgar, bigoted, violently abusive jazz-ensemble director who urges his pupils to value speed and flamboyance over musical sensitivity is unbelievable and counterproductive. No teacher who behaves as Simmons’s character does would survive his first year in the classroom, yet we are expected to accept this belligerent jerk as mentor to the finest jazz students in the world.
"Professional musicians tend to avoid watching music movies because Hollywood mangles so many facts and technical details. Like Elijah Wood’s ludicrous recent ‘Grand Piano,’ Chazelle’s ‘Whiplash’ may soon join the long list of dramatic films so bad that their creators are tempted to reintroduce them as comedies."
Hmm, I’ll take Hal Howland’s word for it. In addition to being a jazz musician, he’s the author of "The Human Drummer: Thoughts on the Life Percussive."