I realise that this comes late, and long after the ‘buzz’ has died, but I’m OK with that – I came to prog rock and be-bop late too, and American-style pancakes (I sometimes now eat salty-sweet dinner/dessert at breakfast time, just like the Yanks – mmm, sausage patties and maple syrup and eggs).

I recall music educator friends from the US going a bit crazy when they saw Whiplash in theatres – some read it as an insult to their profession, lest the frustrated psychopathic band director character be perceived by some people to represent what actually happens in actual band rooms in actual schools in the States – all of this heightened in impact, of course, because the story is allegedly based on an exaggerated version of writer-director Damien Chazelle’s memories of his own time at university as a jazz drummer.

Anyway, I suppose because I’m a drummer and a college lecturer, just about everyone I’ve met or spoken with since Whiplash came out has asked me what I thought of it. Until today I had no answer. I read what Bill Bruford thought; I knew Dom Famularo’s opinion, and I heard the movie won some prizes. But I was distracted by a panto, writing, editing, teaching, gigging, etc. and kept rediscovering that iTunes would not let UK customers watch the film ahead of its UK home release. Then I had the DVD in vacuum wrap on top of the TV at home for eight weeks while my wife and I tried to find a night we were both at home and didn’t have to work late, so we could watch it togther. We finally saw it on Wednesday. I was pretty excited.

From the first long, ridiculous shot of a drummer wailing away on a drum kit in a room with the doors wide open (something no drummer in any college anywhere has ever, ever done), through the ranks of sullen and defeated brass players all staring morosely at the floor when the director walks in to the rehearsal room, to the epically vacuous closing scene where – guess what! – the drummer plays a concert (!!!), the film left me irritated and cross. I could have been watching American Sniper instead or, better yet, working.

In the interests of concision, I’ll list a few things that struck me about Whiplash:

  • Sure, it was tense.
  • You can’t punch a hole in a snare drum head – even hitting it repeatedly with, say, bits of hard wood wouldn’t achieve that (see any drummer, ever).
  • A blast beat is not double-time swing (it’s a blast beat).
  • Playing drums with that amount of tension in one’s body is not sustainable, healthy or even possible.
  • Drummers have routinely practised eight or ten hours a day for years and never had their hands bleed. What the actual fuck?!?!
    (A more likely outcome of intensively playing double-time swing for hours on end is that a drumstick or two might break down the middle; FYI, this also happens when playing Aerosmith covers.)
  • “Big boy tempo” was the same as the slower one. D’oh!
  • No musician – unless also a dancer, addressing a group of dancers who are not also musicians – would ever consider counting in any piece of music “five, six, seven, eight”.
  • Playing fast is not the only measure of virtuosity or competence.
  • Neither is keeping metronomic time (which is, in so many ways, antithetical to great musicianship).
  • That story about Jones, Bird and the cymbal is not the story about Jones, Bird and the cymbal.
  • Sigh…

Did I empathise with the lead character – aspiring jazz drummer Andrew Neyman? In moments, yes I did. I too had a conservatoire jazz education, idolized Buddy Rich for my entire first year of college, and ended a relationship with a girl because I knew I wouldn’t have room for her half-assed life in my obsessively self-absorbed pursuit of drumming as much and as well as I could. I have also broken down and been in a car crash on the way to work.

Although I spent many hours in my first (and second) year at the Welsh College of Music and Drama (it wasn’t “Royal” back then) practising aggressively fast drumming (along with quiet drumming, slow drumming, nuanced drumming, empathic, sensitive and humanistic drumming, and, don’t tell anyone, the clarinet), I did so under the diligent and powerful tutelage of four men whose individual and collective mastery, wisdom and compassion came closer to making “Charlie Parkers” out of me and a generation of my peers than any amount of psychological, physical and verbal abuse has ever done or could ever do for any number of fragile undergraduate student musicians (believe me, we’re all desperately fragile). Charlie Parker’s solos, his stunning ensemble playing and his tragic addictions are testimony to the great man’s own brittleness and knife-edge sanity, and to the presence of similar conditions in a great many artists, at least as much as are the weeping of Andrew Neyman or the pitiful sobbing of the scapegoat (not-) out-of-tune trombonist.

I did really like the music in the film, though – that was marvelous. Except that the film’s epic time-wasting and bullshittery are only heightened by the fact that the piece of music the band rehearses throughout, and from which the movie takes its title, was penned by Hank Levy, who, according to David Aldridge, was one of the most wonderful and encouraging of jazz educators.

Whiplash? I hated it.

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