Whiplash

I’ve seen quite a few comments about Whiplash. And now I’ll make my own.

First of all, I liked the film. I’ts one of the sparse times I leave the theater mostly satisfied with that I’ve seen. That doesn’t mean the movie is perfect, of course; there are many things I don’t like. But it’s a honest, correct and enjoyable (in a somewhat wicked sense) movie. That’s quite a lot nowadays, and that’s why I understand all the hype.

Many comments describe the film as a masterwork. I don’t think it is, and I’m not delving too much into that. But I’ve seen comments in the opposite sense, and I’m more interested in those. I think most of them are wrong as well.

In this film there are obvious exaggerations. Too much blood, for instance. Too much speed (playing fast is not one of the main concerns of any jazz instrumentalist). Too much teacher abuse (a big band conductor can terrify you without such a direct and explicit pressure). Too much physical endeavour (a drummer in the best school of New York would probably never play with such a physical tension, which is something you should avoid at all cost when playing any instrument). Too long and supposedly spectacular drum solos.

At this point, direct and explicit pressure hasn't even started yet.

At this point, direct and explicit pressure hasn’t even started yet.

Those are artistic licenses. I don’t like them, but they are acceptable for one reason: they don’t significantly alter the plot, the meaning of the film. The story would be esentially the same if those exaggerations were not there. The exaggerations that really upset me are those that a writer uses as an essential resource to solve a situation; he couldn’t do it without the exaggeration, and he’s resorting to an easy solution. If the drummer was playing someting difficult (but not necessarily fast), if he was rehearsing to exhaustion (without any blood or snare punching), if the conductor was not so foul-mouthed and abusive and if the solos were more adjusted and realistic, the film would be essentially the same.

So, yes, there is some “karate kid” and some “rocky” here. The director wanted to create a hero epic or discourse that everybody could recognize, musician or not. I find that unnecesary and hence wrong, but who knows.

A good example of the comments about Whiplash is that by Kid Millions. A drummer himself, he points out how the drummer actors do a lousy job at faking. I’m not a drummer myself, but I’ve seen quite a lot of them playing, I’m specially sensitive to bad playbacks in instrumentalists, and Whiplash is more than correct in that sense (and actually those actors are supposed to be drummers).

Then the author starts complaining about things that don’t make much sense. He tells things like:

But it turns out that Whiplash is not about […] drumming, or music, or friendship, or fathers and sons, or music school or all the cherished sentimental things one needs to give up to become “one of the greats” — it’s about the casual sexism, racism and homophobia that’s our country’s stock-in-trade.

I strongly disagree. Whiplash is exactly that: it’s about drumming, music, friendship, fathers and sons, music schools and leaving everything aside just to become one of the greats. That’s the point: those are exactly the subjects. On the other hand, Whiplash is not a documentary about drum playing, and I think that’s the problem with many viewers. They wanted to see themselves, their ideas, on the screen, and not a story that just incidentally intersects with their lives.

Another example:

So do we get amazing music in this movie? Well, no, not really. The band plays bloodless renditions of the old jazz standard “Caravan” and the odd-meter mainstay “Whiplash,” and then we see Fletcher in a bar later in the film playing in a tepid piano quartet, playing something boring. I would rate the performance two Zs out of three.

Come on, Kid. It’s a school, and maybe the renditions are bloodless but technically accurate (out of pure fear), and maybe that’s exactly how Fletcher band would have sounded. Fletcher plays uninteresting ballads? Maybe that’s exactly what Flecher would play in reality; maybe he’s a frustrated, mediocre player that finds his glory in winning big band contests and terrifying students. What did you want when you sat at the theater? A story or a jazz concert? Yet more:

Is there something about music that feels galvanic and spiritual here? No, no, it’s straight-up academy, boot camp, overcompetitive, testosterone-fueled posturing. There’s nothing to prove to us that music matters to these characters. […] There are no women in the top jazz group. […] But is there anything that shows us that Neyman might be a prodigy, or a kid whose life has been transformed by music? […] Whiplash is about trying to become a musician in such a twisted and perverse way that it constantly undermines itself. […] Music is not about trying to be the greatest musician who ever lived. […] It’s about playing music with people — finding a community and truly connecting with other people.

When Kid Millions points out the flaws he finds in the film… he’s actually describing the film. To all those supposed defects, I answer: “Yes! Yes, of course!” It’s academy, overcompetitive. There are no women. Neyman is definitely not a prodigy. Whiplash is about trying to become a musician for the wrong reason, and actually being “the best” is the goal for these characters, instead of making beauty with sounds or sharing it with fellow musicians. That’s exactly the story. And then, what’s your problem with that? Whiplash is not endorsing a way of life; it’s telling a story.

If you criticize something by pointing out exactly what it is, what the director wanted to express, as if those things were mistakes, the conclusion is clear: you didn’t understand the film. The film is OK, but you went there looking for something different, and you were wrong.

The same applies to other comments I’ve seen. Instead of critizicing the film, they are critizicing the characters or the events, which makes no sense, since people and life are what they are, sometimes good and sometimes bad.

So there are things I don’t like in Whiplash, but I consider many comments completely misguided.

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3 comentarios to “Whiplash”

  1. Emilio Molina Says:

    I watched the trailer and I didn’t get catched by it. Now I think I will give it a try 🙂 But it sounds a little bit like “Rockstar” (I liked it, though).

    En otro orden de cosas, https://twitter.com/gominolasdpetro/status/568013774034231296
    Si tienes contactos o conocidos o lo que sea, se agradecería un cable para evitar charlatanes difundiendo fraudes peligrosos en colegios públicos.
    jovellan@educastur.princast.es

  2. Emilio Molina Says:

    We watched the movie today. I’m still a little bit shocked. Such an intensity! There are a couple of things that I didn’t buy, but in general it has been one of the best movies about music I have seen ever (I still prefer “The legend of 1900”, though).

  3. guticr Says:

    Glad to hear that! I absolutely agree: actually lots of things I don’t buy 🙂 but lots of valuable things anyway. A solid story, interesting characters (somewhat exaggerated, I admit), good pace…

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