Although this movie has been well received critically, I’ve noticed a lot of negative comments from musicians.
First off, it’s a very cool movie and I give it a very high recommendation. In fact, it feels like the most real movie I’ve ever seen about the music business… from the boy’s POV. The combination of fear, obsession, self-absorption… and the willingness to completely self-destruct for ‘the dream’ is 100% accurate.
Second, I have never, I mean never seen anyone literally bleed like that from practice. Or sweat to ‘force’ themselves to play faster. Doesn’t happen. This was cinematic license. Real practice isn’t cinematic. It’s simply boring repetition that takes months and months and is definitely not montage-worthy. However I’ve seen plenty of guys physically damage themselves from over-practice or bad practice. And worse, I’ve seen plenty of guys go just plain NUTS. I mean like, jump off a building or sell all their clothes and join an ashram.
Third, I’ve never seen a physically abusive director like that. Again, cinematic license. That said, as I said before, how such a guy makes students feel is 100% accurate. There’s no need for the physical abuse. But Simmons’ posturing is spot on. Above all, his true belief that he is right in his approach is 100% accurate… as is the amazing fact that such jerks still manage to have lots of friends as he does. For some reason, they never see him in all his glory… or they also go along with it (so long as it ain’t them sweating.)
Fourth, how the young man can become such an asshole to his girlfriend/dad/etc. is 100% accurate. As is his willingness to keep coming back for more. Such an all-consuming passion, coupled with the whole ‘hipster’ deal affects everyone’s personality to one degree or another. You spend so much time working on something that most people don’t care about it’s hard to not become neurotic. All the competition of pro football,with almost none of the rewards except for being ‘cool’ with a very small group of people.
And finally, the depiction of repertoire is pretty accurate. Students in ‘studio jazz bands’ generally start off playing big band charts from the 30’s-40’s and work their way into more ‘modern’ stuff. The ‘older’ styles are to jazz musicians what Bach and Beethoven are to classical players: the standard repertoire that everyone has to master.
Now, the movie has about 1,000 factual inaccuracies and this is what musicians seem to go on about most. The anecdote about a cymbal being thrown at Charlie Parker to ‘inspire him to greatness’ is twisted at best. And I’ve heard a zillion grouses from drummers on everything from the young man’s stick technique to drum layout to the outdated solos he plays to show his chops. Fair enough. But 99.999% of viewers won’t get that and I think those details are irrelevant to the larger message the movie wishes to convey.
I think of it like so much of Shakespeare: many details may be hard to swallow (the blood/throwing a chair, etc.) but the TRUTH it reveals about the characters is even more important. The more I think about it, I can’t think of a better (truer) movie of its type. It has a truthfulness about people, even though it may feel ‘truthy’ to musicians.
Now, one has to admit, a lot of the criticism from musicians (especially educators) feels at least a bit self-serving. When I got on this merry-go-round almost forty years ago now, the music biz described in Whiplash was still at least sort of a valid career choice. No educator wants his craft depicted the way this movie does because aside from the character assassination, it’s just plain bad for business! But again, I think those people are missing the point.
The movie is about the obsessions of both the young man and the teacher. It expresses those obsessions in a theatrical way. It’s hard to do a movie about how music practice really works because, frankly, it’s BORING. How does one do a movie about practicing ten hours a day? Now -that’s entertainment. Not.
People who study music, especially these days, are fighting the tide. Very few parents will be thrilled. It’s expensive. The career opportunities stink. And on top of all that, it requires the dedication and commitment of a world-class athlete with a migrant farm-worker salary. The only external ‘reward’ is the adulation of a few hipsters.
Can you imagine student athletes working so hard if there was no ‘NFL’ or ‘Olympics’ or ‘FIFA’ dream? That’s what serious music study is… knocking yourself out from childhood with only ‘art’ as reward. This movie gets it, even if it gets every drumming or ‘Bird’ detail wrong.
In one sentence: this movie could have just as easily been made about a young Olympic gymnast and her over-the-top coach. It would be (almost) the same truth. But in the case of Whiplash, people who study music are in it for a lifetime, not just until they ‘grow up’. You’re studying something that has an almost religious feel; something you’re committing to as a calling. That’s a different level of psychology and that’s what makes this movie unique. It’s the first movie I’ve seen that delves into the why of a life in music–and how that can affect kids in the same way that the ‘pro sports’ dream does. (But without the ‘pro sports’ pot o’ gold. 😀 )