On a plane home from Europe the other day I watched a movie called Whiplash, about a jazz drummer at a fictional music school in New York and his battle with this asshole band director who just about kills him by… well, being an asshole.
It wasn’t a bad movie for a jazz lover like me. There were a lot of good tunes, albeit mostly big band stuff which isn’t necessarily my thing, but still good tunes. I started off as a drummer myself before I switched to keyboard percussion, so I could relate pretty well to the specific physical issues the kid was wrestling with as he tried to push his fastest swing tempo ever faster. And certainly any musician who has been to music school has seen or heard about abusive teachers or directors, people who genuinely believe that they are doing their students a great service by humiliating them in public. The portrayal of this particular band director was exaggerated to drive the plot of the movie, but sure, there was a grain of truth there.
There was something that bothered me about the movie though and I didn’t really put my finger on it until a couple days later: Despite having a lot of music in it, the movie wasn’t really about music. It was much more about equating achievement with physical struggle and pain — lots of shots of the bandaids on the kid’s hands, blood on the cymbals, sweat everywhere, etc. In other words, the plot could have been lifted from any sports movie. Talented young kid thinks he’s all that, runs headlong into abusive coach who sees potential but insists on “breaking him down,” followed by humiliation, struggle, and eventually some level of victory.
Now, there is nothing wrong with the idea that achievement requires hard work and discipline, and achievement in music is certainly no different. But in focusing on all the physical suffering this kid goes through to achieve, the movie entirely misses an essential thing about music, and jazz music in particular: great music is an art, not a sport, and it requires above all else listening. A great musician listens intently to herself, to the other players in her ensemble, to the room she is playing in. This is particularly true in jazz, and I would argue even more true of jazz drumming. The drummer’s entire role is to support the other musicians in the band, to feed off what they’re doing in a solo in real time and make it into something greater. In-the-moment creativity and art is what separates great music from merely good music, not just in jazz but in chamber and orchestral music as well.
So in the end I found myself dissatisfied with Whiplash (although kudos to the filmmaker for making any kind of jazz movie at all, and doing a credible job with a lot of details). I wanted it to be about the musician’s never-ending search for art in the moment, and instead I got Top Gun.