Cockblockin’ Beats!

Niall Anderson attempts to get his groove on to Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash


“There’s a group of guys that asked me to play. They play gigs for money, pops,” says Sal Mineo meekly in The Gene Krupa Story (1959). Pops Krupa has his son down to enter seminary and thereafter the priesthood, so even this mild rebellion is too much for him. He smashes the young Gene’s drums piece by crashing piece. At the end of the film, Krupa performs his own act of destruction on the kit – only this time it’s in the context of a live performance with the Tommy Dorsey Band. As his performance grows more and more explosive and expressive, Krupa’s wife Ethel can only wonder whether this is Gene finding himself at last or losing himself forever.

There is a lot of The Gene Krupa Story in Damien Chazelle’s debut feature Whiplash. Given the paucity of films about drummers and drumming, this is maybe not surprising. There is the requisite kit-smashing, the mandated mixture of performances that sing and performances that sink, and a general air of macho contention. But there are deeper resonances as well. Both films present music in general – and drumming in particular – as an unholy quest for excellence; a quest above family, above friendship, above sanity and reason. But where the earlier film offers Krupa a shadow vision of himself in the priesthood, Whiplash offers its hero Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) a starker alternative: excellence or failure.

JK Simmons as the World Cup trophy
JK Simmons as the World Cup trophy

This choice is presented to Andrew by Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the hard-nut conductor of a university jazz orchestra. Fletcher first tells Andrew to relax, keep time, and work his way into the feel of the band. Then he stops Andrew as soon as he starts to play. Then the insults begin. Then the violence. Within about fifteen minutes of joining the band, Andrew is trying to keep time while Fletcher literally dismantles the kit as he’s playing it. Soon there’s blood everywhere.

What we’re talking about, basically, is Full Metal Drumsticks. In Kubrick’s film, however, most of the characters were pressed men: their choice was between the prison of army training or an actual military prison. In Whiplash, the door is always open for Andrew to quit. That he doesn’t is supposed to say something about his character, and maybe even the character of his playing, but Whiplash is conveniently coy about the bits of Andrew’s life that don’t take place on the drum-seat.

This makes for a fun movie, but not necessarily a convincing one. The impassive-looking Teller is a fine foil for Simmons’ muscular panto baddie. (Teller is, for one thing, a drummer of ludicrous skill.) And Simmons – a familiar character actor from dozens of films and upscale US TV dramas – seizes his moment in the limelight with exactly the right amount of aplomb. He drives the film without ever getting in the way.

The problem is that there’s nothing else here. Supporting characters are shuffled offstage as soon as they’ve served their structural function; which is to say, at the precise point that they might actually become organic parts of the drama, rather than humanoid scenery. And the film’s attitude to music is, finally, more than a little bit stilted.

The film features a number of ensemble performances, but doesn’t seem at all interested in the idea of ensemble playing. As conductor, Fletcher concentrates almost exclusively on the technical skills and limitations of his players: he drills them in speed; he constantly tests their reaction times; he puts his faith in the idea that if each of his players has a core technical facility, their ensemble performances will turn out right. There is nothing exactly wrong with this philosophy – practice does makes perfect – but it still essentially posits artistic perfection as merely a form of practical omnicompetence. If you can keep a beat while your conductor throws a floor tom at you, you must surely be a better drummer than a guy who can’t, right?

Well, no. What Fletcher misses – and what the film colludes with him in missing – is that musicianship is about listening as much as performing. Accordingly, the ensemble performances in the film are resolutely tight and unbending. Hank Levy’s ‘Whiplash’, given multiple airings here, is – in its recorded form – an odd fusion of smooth funk, Bacharach-style orchestration and almost pedantic rhythmic complexity. The trick to keeping all the styles together is not to overemphasise any one, but rather to drill through each passage until every player reaches the state of ideal relaxation otherwise known as ‘swing’. What Whiplash doesn’t seem to realise is that you can’t swing on your own.

Whiplash is on general release from January 16.

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