I’ve heard reports that in some cinemas, audiences have reacted at the end of Whiplash by bursting into spontaneous applause. The punters at Manchester Cornerhouse are a bit too cool and detached for that kind of thing. Instead, as the credits appeared, I turned to C and we both made that facial expression where you drop your jaw and raise your eyebrows, in the universal language of Holy Fucking Shit.
At this point I should say that while I will try not to include spoilers in this post, just to be on the safe side if you haven’t seen the film you should probably just stop reading at this point, pop out to your local fleapit, catch up, then return and read on.
Ah. You’re back. You might want to brush off those popcorn crumbs down your shirt.
Whiplash really shouldn’t be quite as good as it is. For anyone who failed to follow the instructions above, it is basically your off-the-peg challenge movie. Flawed but talented outsider has to overcome the odds and hurdle a few obstacles to fulfil a dream, while negotiating a fiery relationship with a brutal but brilliant teacher. The context here is jazz drumming, but it could be almost anything – it’s the King’s Polyrhythm; Rocky with Paradiddles.
As has been widely acknowledged, the movie rises above the herd through breathtaking performances, notably from Golden Globe-winning J.K. Simmons as the tutor Terence Fletcher, but there is so much else to admire in the script, the cinematography, the editing and of course the music. But you don’t come to this blog for movie reviews.
Whiplash is, above all, a movie about men and masculinities. In a script where not a word is wasted, this is made clear early on, as the only female musician we see on screen is instantly booted out of the frame with one of Fletcher’s famously acidic, crushing put-downs. From that moment on, the band is a boys’ club, run with all the brutality of a military bootcamp. Fletcher’s vocabulary is relentlessly misogynistic and homophobic; he is not just trying to make his students into musicians, he is trying to make those boys into men, on his own terms.
Norman Mailer said masculinity is not something given to you, but something you gain, and you gain it by winning small battles with honour. He was a boxing fan, but he could easily have been talking about this movie. The comparison to Rocky above was not entirely flippant. Whiplash is a film about male rivalry, competitiveness, the determination to beat the other guy (whether the other guy is another drummer vying for the stool, or the battle-hardened old pack leader himself.)
The other day I was playing one of my favourite albums, a live performance by three virtuouso guitarists, John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola and Paco de Lucía called “Friday Night in San Francisco.” I was trying to figure out what made this recording sparkle so much and suddenly it hit me – they aren’t just accompanying each other as a trio, a band, so much as battling with each other like gladiators. While I’m sure they have the utmost respect and greatest friendship for each other, their music always has an undertone of combat, whatever astonishing improvised run, riff, lick or trill one of them might play, another bounces back, determined to best it.
At the risk of going out on a limb here, I think this is a distinctively masculine trait. While of course women at the top of any field can also be viciously competitive (just ask Tonya Harding), I think if a movie was to be made about a female musician, or athlete or ballerina or whatever, it would be more likely that the battles would be internal – against her own limitations, personal sacrifices and emotional compromises than it would be about competitiveness with a rival. Whether that can be attributed to hormones and biology, to socialisation, or merely the ways in which we impose our expectations and prejudices upon those we observe… well I shall leave that question hanging. Feel free to pick it up in the comments below.
Returning to the comparison between Whiplash and Rocky, there is one notable difference between the two films – there is much, much more blood in Whiplash.
Blood is the dominant motif of the film. It is not enough to want to succeed. it is not enough to try to succeed. It is not enough to drive oneself past the point of exhaustion, past the point of sweat, past the point of tears. If you do not bleed, you will not succeed, the film seems to say – get Buddy Rich or die trying. Those who have seen the film will know what I mean when I say that nearly dying is not enough – you nearly died? So what. Pick up your broken body, drag yourself back to your kit and don’t forget your drumsticks. [Taps nose knowingly]
This point is spelled out in the script with the (true) story of Charlie Parker. At 16 years old, the saxophonist tried out for a gig with the bandleader and drummer Jo Jones. After initially impressing, the rough-edged and largely self-taught teenager went adrift in his playing. In a flash of anger, Jones hurled a metal cymbal at him from across the room, screamed his disgust and threw Parker out the room, laughter and mockery from other musicians ringing in his young ears.
He could have given up, but Parker instead resolved to prove Jones wrong, went away and practised harder than ever. A year later he returned as the musician who would reinvent jazz music for the latter half of the twentieth century, as the man they called Bird. As the Whiplash script also notes, by the age of 34 he was dead, a broken body ravaged by addictions and the pressures to succeed.
That is the dreadful, cruel question left hanging by Whiplash. What price genius? Can we produce extraordinary human accomplishments without pushing people beyond any reasonable limits of endurance to body and spirit? Whiplash left me unsure of the answer to that question. I refuse to feel guilty for the pleasure I take from Parker and Coltrane, Hendrix and Cobain, Holliday and Joplin, but perhaps now feel a little more appreciation for the sacrifices demanded by their gifts.