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'Whiplash': A good film I probably won't watch again because I am a decent drummer

Published January 17, 2014 11:16 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It can be said with confidence that "Whiplash," a movie playing in the Sundance U.S. dramatic film competition, is a quality film.

Director Damien Chazelle's submission brings you in quickly, manipulates you into loving a terrifying character, forces you to question what counts as motivation and what counts as abuse, and all around gives a very accurate picture of what it's like to be a talented musician reaching for greatness.

Unless you're actually a drummer.

Which is to say, if you get a chance to watch the film, do, but be prepared to let a lot of things slide.

Here's what that means: When push comes to shove, the visuals just don't line up with what you're hearing, and the continuity dramatically suffers if you know by instinct what you're looking for.

As a semi-professional musician who has indeed spent hours locked in a room with nothing but a drum set, a metronome and a dream, I know what it's like to play until your set is sprinkled in blood and sweat, just like leading character Andrew, played by Miles Teller. Plenty of drummers out there do.

But that also means we know where we're bleeding from, and as a matter of fact, the wounds on Andrew's hands, so thoughtfully and disgustingly filmed, are on the wrong hand half the time, given how he plays. And he puts Band-aids on them, which any drummer can tell you is how sticks go flying. You use electrical tape because it grips almost like skin, keeping your instrument in your hand where it belongs.

Speaking of grip, Andrew doesn't hold his sticks right, and especially not right for someone who's playing at his level. For the average viewer, seeing Andrew pounding away rhythmically like a monkey, at a volume that is five times too loud, at least from visual queues, isn't a problem, and you're supposed to be focusing on his intense and strained face anyway. Teller does a fine job of playing the part, but not the set, which isn't so bad for all but 0.01 percent of the population.

Moreover, the drum set seems to move like magic between cuts, with cymbals in completely different positions when no time has passed at all. The same thing happens with sticks, where one scene has a player using sticks far too large, and then suddenly with sticks just the right size the next moment. Sticks are important, and they don't change shape.

For those of us who are, in real life, more like the fictional Andrew, it's infuriating, and surely he'd be saying the same thing if he watched the film himself, dedicated as he is to his art and education at the New York conservatory where he studies. I feel confident in making these kinds of criticisms precisely because I'm sure Andrew would be making them himself. These issues, combined with halfhearted attempts at portraying the difficulties of maintaining relationships — familial or romantic — while seeking that perfection are at the core of the movie's problems.

But that's all OK, given that "Whiplash" is laser-focused on the struggle of becoming an exceptional musician and the stomach-churning horror of screwing up in front of other players who are better than you. Or even worse, an instructor prepared to literally slap you in the face over and over until you identify what you did wrong, like instructor Terrence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons. These aspects are captured perfectly.

In a lot of ways, "Whiplash" is best compared to non-musical film "The Master." Each have a monomaniacal leader, in this case a band leader, psychologically manipulating his disciple into complete obedience before they find the courage to break out into real freedom. Simmons plays the part masterfully, going to any lengths necessary to get the best out of his students, even if it means risking their lives. He plays it so well, in fact, that he steals the show — Fletcher is by far the most interesting character to watch. You end up rooting for him even as he destroys his students lives.

All in all, it's a watchable, moving film. But drummers, prepare to be annoyed until the final scene, which is simply so gripping, so well-performed and so unexpected that even this percussionist put down his metaphorical sticks and finally succumbed to being entertained.

— David Self Newlin






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