I saw Whiplash on an airplane. It said it wasn’t edited, and there was plenty of salty language; so I assume I saw the full version.

I have some opinions.

I know movies have to be about something, and every professional hates the way their field is portrayed in fiction–I sat between a chemist and an aerospace engineer when I saw the movie Armageddon, so I know of what I speak. But this isn’t really a movie about musicians. The plot moves forward because the characters are crazy: one is an incompetent jerk with major problems, and the other is an adolescent who has a nervous breakdown. It’s not a movie about music at all, and I hope audiences didn’t get the impression that it was. It could have been a sports movie with a coach and a rookie, but they made it about a jazz band. Hence, my opinions.

Most of it appeared to be in nostalgic sepia, like they wanted to make you feel sort of bittersweet about the obvious abuse being perpetrated by the racist, homophobic, antisemitic, misogynist teacher. (Speaking of sexism, I only caught a quick glimpse of one competent female musician in the whole movie.) Interestingly, in the movie, they showed no racism against the African American members of the band.

This teacher is yet another in a long line of jerks who flail; but he’s not even really a conductor. Jazz bands don’t really do “conductors” as such. Band leaders, organizers, etc., sure. But mostly jazz bands take more individual responsibility and perform more like chamber ensembles.

Our antagonist “conductor” says, “I wasn’t there to conduct. Any fucking moron can wave his arms and keep people in tempo. I was there to push people beyond what was expected of  them “ (1:19:ish) Well, yes, any fucking moron can wave his (or, ahem, her) arms and keep people in tempo. I see it all the time. However, a conductor does a lot more than that (hence the five years of blogging about it, not to mention the two graduate degrees I spent seven years acquiring).

And any well-trained conductor can tell you that musicians perform better in an atmosphere of trust and respect. Any social psychologist can cite the research that proves that people entrain more quickly to leaders they like and trust. There’s lots of research that shows that abuse does not produce results. And if you have a teacher or conductor who treats you that way, or calls you names, or feels that any kind of violence is acceptable in rehearsal, I hope you will remove yourself from that toxic situation and contact appropriate authorities.

There is something in the movie that I think is true. Musicians are trained to practice, to commit, and to show up no matter what. The movie illustrates it with blood on hands and spattered on instruments and scores, which is over the top, but whatever. I think the basic point might be one musicians take for granted. If the gig is happening, you get there no matter what.

I suspect this is one reason many professional musicians complain about working with amateurs. Professionals are trained to this kind of commitment, and just can’t conceive why an amateur would choose to participate in a group but not show up to every rehearsal on time.

Even when I was once in a choir where the conductor said things like, “sopranos, when you do that, you make me think you’re stupid,” I knew that this kind of treatment was disrespectful and inappropriate, but I had accepted the responsibility and commitment to sing, so I stayed for the whole season and sang all the concerts. But I never went back.

I suppose the movie was meant to challenge us to see adversity and trial as learning experiences, and perhaps to question the extent to which intense, passionate commitment is healthy. Okay. I wish we could do it without making yet another conductor the asshole, because good conductors are nice; because loving your ensemble makes your ensemble better. Which is why I said the movie is really just about a crazy guy with major issues who is bad at his job interacting with a kid who is a tinderbox of insecurities. The movie’s not about the music at all, of course. I really hope they didn’t think it was supposed to be, and I really hope audiences didn’t believe it was.

And lastly, not for nothin’, the jazz musicians I know are the most easy-going, relaxed dudes in the music world. Seriously, they are the last musicians who would get all riled up like that.

Maybe if it been about hockey it would have made more sense.


p.s. Really, the meter signature on the song “Whiplash” is 14/8? That’s silly when the song is clearly in 7, and ought for the sake of clarity to be notated in 7/4. But I guess 14/8 looks scarier. Eye roll.


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