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Whiplash – A Bloody Awful Film About Drumming

Sigourney WeaverSo I hate-watched Whiplash, the movie that’s got folks salivating with anticipation due to some glowing reviews and enthusiastic press reports. I say hate-watched because I knew I’d hate the movie due to a bunch of stuff some sensible people wrote about it, like George Colligan did on his Jazz Truth Blog and from the trailer.

Why watch it if I knew I’d hate it? Because being a drummer and drum teacher means everyone I talk to assumes I’m interested and I felt I should be in a position to dampen their enthusiasm with some authority. My dad said I’m a miserable git but I take my occupation seriously and don’t enjoy the media taking the piss.

I am now officially qualified to tell you, Whiplash (should have been called Full Metal Drum Kit) is a bloody awful movie. As a representation of drumming it’s bloody awful and as a representation of music education it’s really bloody awful. Here we have the story of a very insecure drummer, Andrew, who, for reasons unknown, has an almost serial-killer like fixation on Buddy Rich. He is being abused by his teacher Fletcher, a bargain-bucket R Lee Ermey impersonator who thinks that the way to cultivate great musicianship is to bully his students into playing cheesy 70’s style big band music.

Andrew is someone who’s mother abandoned him and who’s father is obviously an insensitive dolt who never gave him the warmth and encouragement every child needs leaving him with a horrendous inferiority complex. He manages to get in to the top conservatory in the US and for some reason is picked to play in the top band in the school. He and his bandmates are forced to submit themselves to the relentless abuse and humiliation meted out by the sadistic Fletcher, a barely mediocre bar-room pianist with a deluded sense of his own importance (the people in the school’s HR department must need their heads looking at).

Andrew accepts the abuse hurled at him by Fletcher who takes on the symbolic role of the father who he can never do enough to please and whose approval he desperately needs in order to feel worthy of his place on Earth. These two pathetic individuals play out their melodrama climaxing in a scene in which the son stands up to the father’s abuse and finally he gets the hint of a smile and a likely fleeting moment of grudging respect.

The scenes showing Andrew drumming or practicing are gut-wrenching. Apparently drummers are meant to do their art by tensing every muscle in their bodies and flailing about until their hands bleed. The music is insipid throughout. It all sounded like something that would be on the Dirty Harry soundtrack and who would want to play like Buddy Rich anyway, let alone listen to that cheesy stuff?

Inadequate sadist Fletcher attempts to justify himself by saying that if people aren’t arseholes to each other, no one would be motivated to be really great at anything. I think that those really great people are driven by something within and don’t depend on external stimulus. The idea that Charlie Parker might have not felt driven to develop his playing had he not been laughed off the stage when he was 16 is ridiculous.

Whiplash is a truly horrific film. The message it gives about learning music, the creative process and how to excel is extremely ugly. I can’t help but wonder what kind of society wants people to think that the depressing interaction between the film’s main characters represents the road to excellence and high achievement. Anyone who knows anything about music will probably find it to be, at best, an uncomfortable experience. I’m glad I saw it just so I can go on a rant about how awful it is.