Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The film "Whiplash" has divided the House of Grønmark - but I think it's a masterpiece

"Not quite my tempo - but, hey, it'll do."
On one side there's my son and me - we loved it (he's already seen it three times). On the other, there's my wife, who found it distinctly unsettling. She interpreted it as a young man making a Faustian pact with the devil to renounce his humanity in return for the gift of musical genius, and found it unsettling because, as she put it, the devil wins either way. If the student throws in the sponge (or, in this case, his drumsticks) he will have proved the devil was right to have doubted his talent - and if he becomes a great drummer, the devil's horrendous methods will have been vindicated.

 Is it, I wonder, a bloke's film?

Whatever, I urge you to see it, if you haven't already done so - I've thought about it many times each day since seeing it for the first time last week, and there are very few films that have that effect on me these days (unless it's to wonder how the script got passed, why anyone funded it, why any respectable actor would agree to appear in it, and whether the film industry really is the moral cess-pit that so many of its conscienceless products would seem to suggest it is).

First, the subject of abusive bosses. I only ever worked for one example of the breed, and it was a truly awful experience, mainly because it was difficult to figure out exactly what this particular termagant hoped to gain by inflicting psychological pain on everyone within her power (and I don mean everyone). I expect she would have proffered a similar motivation for her behaviour as the monstrous Terence "Not Quite My Tempo" Fletcher in Whiplash - only in  her case it would have been that she was attempting to forge great television programmes (as if anyone really cares) out of extreme stress, rather than to bully talented young musicians into realising their latent genius - and to hell with all those who get psychologically destroyed in the process). To be honest, I got a lot out of the experience of working for a monster, if only because it made me a much better boss when I eventually got my own department. But I'm pretty sure I'd have got there in my own time, without journeying to the heart of darkness and back in order to discover how it really shouldn't be done.

So, having suffered (albeit to a much lesser extent) under someone almost as ghastly as Terence Fletcher (and having played no part in their eventual comeuppance - to my lingering regret),  I was no more sympathetic to the jazz instructor than my wife was. But I didn't think that Fletcher's student, Jim Neiman, had made a pact with his own devil - rather, in the end, he simply refused to allow himself to become another of Fletcher's pathetic victims. The fact that, by achieving his own potential, Neiman both gives the Devil exactly what he claims to have always craved - a talented pupil who actually achieves musical greatness - and defeats him in the process (not only defeating - but actually bullying the arch-bully) is just splendidly ironic and complex and ambiguous: it's why the film grips the imagination so fiercely.

Of course, there are any number of holes in the plot. The reputation of a teacher as monstrous as Fletcher would have been known to young Neiman beforehand (any number of people warned me about the devil woman I was about to work for); it's inconceivable that in a society as notoriously litigious as modern America, Fletcher would already have been hounded into penurious obscurity by any number of Sue, Grabbitt and Runnes; any academic institution would have had the security guards march the bald bonkers bastard out of the door within a week of his arrival; and it seems odd that there's absolutely no evidence of our music student hero ever practicing or jamming with other musicians - or even of him speaking to any of the other students. But it's not supposed to be "real" - it just has to be real enough.

As for the quality of the music on offer, I've read several spectacularly snotty articles by jazz aficionados assuring us it's all dreadfully inaccurate and tenth rate. Were I a jazz aficionado, I would probably feel the same way - the music in most films about the sort of music I know something about is dreadful, unless it's just actors miming to original recordings (the film Cadillac Records worked until someone purporting to be Chuck Berry turned up and spoiled it). But I know very little about jazz, so whatever the movie's musical shortcomings, they simply passed me by: besides, it's not actually about music - so what we hear just has to be good enough to fool the non-expert (much of the drumming in the great "Caravan" finale was done by the actor himself, apparently, and the chances of him being a musician of genius as well as a very good actor are, let's face it, remote).

What truly astonished me about the film (apart from its quality) was that it cost a measly $3.5 million to make. That's ridiculous - it's a fraction of what you'd pay some no-talent walking ego of a Hollywood "star" to ensure that your film opens. And for that they got one of the most memorable screen performances of modern times (J.K. Simmons as the demonic instructor) and - especially in the musical sequences - some brilliantly effective editing.

If you have no intention of seeing the film (or if you've already seen it) here is the glorious final sequence - all 15 minutes of it. If you haven't seen the film and think you might one day - PLEASE DON'T WATCH THIS, as it'll spoil everything:

And always remember Homer Simpson's classic dictum: "Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try."


  1. I saw it on release in London's best cinema - Curzon Victoria - with its sofa seats, superb sound system and ticket prices to deter people who come to the cinema to talk and unwrap sweets. The girl I went with rated it the best film of the year but it divided her family along Gronmarkian lines, with her mother articulating a variation of the Fausitian pact theory. To me, it was simply a marvellous tale about the strength of the human spirit. Although it helps if you like drumming, in a sense that was just a convenient medium to demonstrate the physical and mental bullying in the context of an intensely physical and mental activity.

    I also read some snotty reviews from jazzers. I tend to distrust what most of them say, having spent too many evenings listening to highly recommended and highly priced atonal noodling during my one year membership of Ronnie Scott's. I thought the music was exceptional.

    1. Atonal noodling at Ronnie Scott's - what were you thinking? As far as I can tell, most modern jazz is a conspiracy aimed at making genuine music lovers feel stupid.

      Glad you and your companion also rated the film highly - I'm genuinely looking forward to seeing it again.