Jazz in the Hollywood Machine: ‘Whiplash’, Insider Anxiety, and Riffing Violence

So the other day I finally watched Whiplash, in part because of the attention the film garnered on the Oscars. And I didn’t hate it. I mean, as a jazz musician, educator, and an empathetic person, there’s a lot to dislike and revile about the plot and particularly about the lightning rod bandleader Terence Fletcher, the character so expertly portrayed by J.K. Simmons. But, as a film, I didn’t hate it. I’m admittedly late to the ongoing dialogue about the film, but Simmons’s award has reignited the discussion, at least in my Facebook and Twitter feeds.  I watched the movie with my partner, who’s also a jazz musician, and we both had plenty to discuss after the film. We also marveled at how we seemed to take the movie a bit more in stride than some of the press and online discussion we’d read.

Fletcher beats his students up. He’s a bad teacher. Not just bad, but so vile in word and deed that those who are band teachers, bandleaders, or musicians who are familiar with the types of rehearsals and institutions the movie portrays have to suspend their disbelief to get through the movie—”I’ve never worked with someone like that!” or “no one who teaches like that would keep their job!”. Of course Fletcher was fired but continued to get work…

And is it just me or was that a *really* poor choice of music (and just bad music, period) for Fletcher’s club performance scene? I think maybe the filmmakers were trying to depict Fletcher’s melancholy for the loss of one of those coveted college gigs. But I heard it as weak and very antithetical to how the hardnosed, no-nonsense, killin’, bad cat musician Fletcher was supposed to be…

More importantly, I think some of the backlash about the movie I’ve been hearing relates to musicians’ and educators’ concerns about reactions and judgments from those viewers who might not know they had to suspend their disbelief. People without firsthand experience in music conservatories and jazz circles. “Jazz is so infrequently in the public limelight, and this is how it’s being portrayed!” It’s not unlike the anxiety that jazz musicians and educators who felt left out of Ken Burns’s series on jazz expressed themselves. And, in that respect, I’d echo all of them. Burn, Whiplash, Burn…

That being said, Whiplash isn’t a bad movie. Not a great one, but not a bad movie. I think this “insider’s anxiety” is partly motivated by the recurrent and trenchant trope that jazz—the great American artform—is dying. (One listen to Antonio Sanchez’s amazing score for Birdman—or any number of countless other scores or albums—will disprove that.) But the backlash is also informed by a commonsense ethics that villifies the violence that is so recurrent and ubiquitous in mainstream popular film. It’s even more polarizing and inflammatory because the violence is being carried out by a teacher, one of the very few to whom we parents relinquish the control and care of our children. For its betrayal of that trust—and the malicious associations Whiplash makes on arts education and jazz educators in particular—it has drawn justifiable criticism. This is exacerbated by the award-winning, highly artful performance of Simmons, who portrays an obviously perverse and hateful person who happens to work in a profession that many people—myself included—care very deeply about. Does all that the late Robin Williams accomplished for teachers in Dead Poets Society—such a formative movie for the last two generations of educators—come undone in Whiplash? Will “Oh, Captain, my captain” forever be replaced with “Were you rushing or dragging?”?


Luckily, not. The movie is fiction. Quite obviously fiction. Even for those who may not know how sensationalized the teacher-student dynamic really is, we have the car accident scene as referent for the depths of Fletcher’s psychopathic disorder. If the film had been couched as an exposé that had been fictionalized to protect the innocent, I think we’d be having a totally different conversation. But, luckily, the movie is fiction.

Moreover, there’s another aspect to all of this: Fletcher isn’t the lead (Simmons won the Oscar for best supporting actor). How can the film be read differently from the protagonist’s perspective? The drummer Neiman’s triumph has little to do with the necessary, collaborative empathy of ensemble playing and everything to do with the bombastic, phallocentric performance practices and attitudes that have marginalized women throughout jazz’s history (of which Fletcher’s degrading, mysogynistic comment to the first tenor player in Shaffer Academy’s B band is a clear example). As is often the case, abusers in positions of power can, as in Whiplash, maintain those positions of power even amid reproach and punishment for their acts. But I wonder whether we might view the final scene as an act of resolute resistance in the face of such abuse? Could Andrew Neiman even be viewed as a metonym for the perseverance of jazz musicians amid the institutions of a music industry and listening public that have been so disenfranchising?

I’m not trying to excuse the deplorable normalization of physical and emotional abuse of students in the film. And I’m neither a film critic nor an authority on criminal behavior. I just want to sound a note of caution against mapping the hopes and goals for jazz education onto a film that very obviously has completely different aims: what amounts to the mischaracterization of an artform, music, and a career path about which some of us care very deeply for the sake of filmic art (or maybe just “film”). But we need to consider the film’s market as well. Whiplash just relies on and invokes the same tropes of dramatic violence and sensationalization that has provided the U.S. film industry with a proven formula for financial and industry success. In a way, it’s just another Die Hard. I imagine those of us in the jazz community might feel little bit better if we talk to firefighters who have seen Backdraft, hedge fund managers who have watched Wall Street, or lawyers who have seen The Devil’s Advocate. Are there artistic elements—even merits—to the film? Absolutely. But its valorization of abuse goes a long way to undermine them.

One thing is for sure—as with the Burns’s series—Whiplash is opening up a space—a break—in public consciousness about and around jazz that those of us who view arts education and jazz music as vital to our society need to step up into. Whether we view the film’s attention as renown or infamy, it’s an opportunity to react: to add our pieces by revising and retelling this fictional story with heavy doses of jazz reality—the actual bloodshed, the actual triumphs, and the actual art.

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