Kid Millions Talks the Jazz Film Whiplash, Drumming and Keepin’ It Real

The celebrated drummer and composer on what the much-ballyhooed film gets very wrong about its central topic: music.
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People often ask, “Are there ever negative pieces in the Talkhouse?” There sure are, and we figured it was time for a week’s worth of outstanding pans. It does take a little gumption to knock the work of one of your peers in such a high-profile forum, but plenty of Talkhouse writers have registered their displeasure. As ever, though, they do so from a musician’s perspective, a rare and very valuable point of view. Best of all, the pieces come from a place of respect… usually. But we’ll let you decide.
— The editors of Talkhouse Music

Whiplash, the new movie directed by Damien Chazelle, starring Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) as an aspiring jazz drummer and J.K. Simmons as a drill-sergeant bandleader, had me struggling with an existential question as the film came to its unintentionally comical ending: is this how the rest of the world views drumming and music? I’m not even sure Whiplash is a good movie — but in terms of drumming and the practice of music, it’s a farce. It’s a classic athletic underdog story (see: Rocky or Miracle or Hoosiers) reframed in a music school. But then it doesn’t even stick to that tried-and-true narrative. But I need to give away some spoilers… you’ve been warned.

Whiplash begins with the sound of a single-stroke roll in complete darkness, slowly increasing in tempo until the sound blurs into a seamless buzz of sound. OK, that’s a classic exercise. A real drummer did that. Then there’s a slow-motion zoom on Neyman (Miles Teller) bashing away at his drum set. The rack tom is tiny, so I guess he plays jazz. He’s soloing, his arms are flailing, the lighting is moody… and for those moments I wondered if they’d found an actor who could really play the drums. His technique wasn’t amazing but he was moving around the kit with some affinity. Traditional grip, even! It was a pulseless solo, nothing too amazing, but with spirit and energy. I didn’t know that Teller is a fairly well-known actor, so I wondered if this guy was someone they found at the local conservatory who also acted. But no, he’s just an actor who can play OK drums.

Then Fletcher (played by Simmons) enters the room and sets the scene a bit. We’re at a conservatory and Fletcher runs the top jazz big band in the school. He heard Neyman playing after hours and wanted to check him out, because he’s always looking for new talent. I guess his reputation as a raging asshole has preceded him because Neyman is terrified. Neyman comes off like the young idiot that he is, but he’s respectful — a lot of “yes, sir” and “no, sir.” By the end of the conversation we’re in the frame of the film. It’s efficient and well done, with great acting: this movie is going to be about a kid in his first year of music school.

But as a drummer, I’m thinking, OK, what did Fletcher hear in this dude? He just played quickly all over the kit; a kind of bad Buddy Rich-style solo. Jazz drumming is the most technically demanding drumming there is and if it’s a serious big band, then you need to be good. You need to swing. Because the drumming was so unspectacular, I started to wonder whether the subtext was that Fletcher actually was attracted to the student sexually. Maybe this movie was about sexual abuse in schools. There’s a lot of that going around.

But it turns out that Whiplash is not about sexual abuse — or drumming, or music, or friendship, or fathers and sons, or music school or all the cherished sentimental things one needs to give up to become “one of the greats” — it’s about the casual sexism, racism and homophobia that’s our country’s stock-in-trade. Whether it’s played for comedy (many people in the audience laughed at the virulent sexist and homophobic slurs that Fletcher hurls at his band) or for dramatic purposes (which is kind of a cop-out because the film never addresses Fletcher’s racism or sexism), it’s exploitation at its most base. And this film itself is classic exploitation, perhaps of a different sort.

Here we have an underdog character, kind of, with Neyman. He doesn’t come from a family of musicians. So what? He’s a freshman. OK. And at the end of the day, he breaks down under the pressure of Fletcher’s heavy-handed abuse. But he can’t show up to gigs on time, so he doesn’t get to play. And then there’s a really ridiculous scene… am I really gonna say this? It’s too elaborate. Suffice it to say, he tries to get to a gig, he’s late — not once, but twice, and gets hit by a truck — and he still plays the gig. But he plays terribly — because he was, you know, hit by a truck. But he seems to blame it all on Fletcher, whom he tackles in a rage during the concert and then gets kicked out of school for it. But let’s break it down: he’s training to be a musician, so he has to be on time for gigs. Take the hit. Learn a lesson. And by the way, you’re not that good at playing drums. So that’s another strike.

So do we get amazing music in this movie? Well, no, not really. The band plays bloodless renditions of the old jazz standard “Caravan” and the odd-meter mainstay “Whiplash,” and then we see Fletcher in a bar later in the film playing in a tepid piano quartet, playing something boring. I would rate the performance two Zs out of three.

Is there something about music that feels galvanic and spiritual here? No, no, it’s straight-up academy, boot camp, overcompetitive, testosterone-fueled posturing. There’s nothing to prove to us that music matters to these characters. There’s absolutely no backstory for Fletcher. I thought, OK, he dresses in these tight black shirts, he’s very cut and everyone he sees is a “cocksucking faggot” — perhaps he’s a self-hating gay man. That might be intriguing. Maybe those scenes were cut. It’s never explored.

There are no women in the top jazz group. There is one woman in the film who plays sax on screen and she’s quickly denigrated.

There are scenes where Neyman watches Buddy Rich footage on his phone, and we know he has at least one Buddy Rich CD and one Buddy Rich DVD. But is there anything that shows us that Neyman might be a prodigy, or a kid whose life has been transformed by music? How did he get hooked? No fucking idea.

At one point, Neyman sits in front of a wall, exhausted, and the wall is covered with lots of practice exercises — maybe from Modern Drummer. The camera pauses on a quotation: “Drummers with lesser ability just end up playing rock music” or something like that. OK, I know, rock drummers are terrible drummers! What’s your point? So are some actors.

And OK, have the set dressers never seen a drumhead that’s been played on? Didn’t they bring a professional drummer on set as a consultant? I scanned the credits and didn’t find one. The drumheads are covered with scratches… why? I don’t think I’ve ever scratched a drum head — and no, wise-ass, those aren’t brush scratches.

I was disappointed when they showed Neyman practicing, his hands covered in blood, his face a rictus of agony, every muscle in his body strained and tight, then plunging his bleeding hands into a bucket of ice water. (I have done that — minus the blood.) Jesus Christ, music is about relaxing as you play faster — the more you relax, the faster you go. Instead, this guy is looking at a life of pain and an early retirement. At one point he’s going for it — playing really fast for no reason, blasting away, getting worked up, insane — until he punches his fist through the snare drum!!! WHAT?! For a minute, I thought maybe he popped over from another film — turns out Teller’s in the upcoming Fantastic Four movie as Reed Richards, the stretchy guy. But who punches snare drums in anger? Any drummer who did that wouldn’t get any more gigs — because their hand would be broken.

The film obsesses about this crazy-fast 310 BPM tempo and Neyman bears down on it. He works really hard to sound entirely unfunky and leaden all while playing stupidly fast. Of course, there are some other drummers he’s competing with — also actors who can’t really play drums. There’s a funny scene where Fletcher wants the drummers to play a proper tempo — and none of them can. So he makes them stay for hours until they can play uptempo properly. But in reality it’s just three actors pretending to play the drums really fast, and what that means to an actor is quite strange. They kind of do it. But then… they really don’t. I mean, hey, I can’t act, but those guys took the gig of portraying drummers, so it’s on them. They can make fun of me when I’m in the next X-Men movie. I can guarantee you that they made more money portraying drummers than I will ever make actually being a drummer.

The band leader Fletcher literally is an abuser — he’s slapping students, calling them “cocksuckers,” “ladies” and “faggots,” as this country’s uncritical romanticization of all things military bleeds into the halls of this fictional music school. It’s all about hazing and brutality. At one point Fletcher pulls a floor tom away from a drummer and throws it against a wall; I’m thinking, why would you do this to an instrument? I mean, I understand destruction and anger in music but these guys are trying to play “Caravan,” they’re not the Who at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival.

Whiplash is about trying to become a musician in such a twisted and perverse way that it constantly undermines itself. The pinnacle of success for these people is to be in the “core” of the Lincoln Center Jazz Band, up there with Wynton. There’s even a pivotal scene set in Carnegie Hall during the JVC Jazz Festival. Those are some really tired institutions — certainly not the only places you could play as an aspiring jazz musician.

There’s a lot more to music.

Music is not about trying to be the greatest musician who ever lived. It’s not about idealizing a friendless, obsessive, tortured existence for something as abstracted and devoid of joy as competition. It’s about playing music with people — finding a community and truly connecting with other people. Yes, some of that path requires that you spend a lot of time by yourself, practicing. But the goal is never to be Charlie Parker or “one of the greats.” That’s some sophomoric academy shit.

But maybe I shouldn’t criticize Whiplash as a whole. Perhaps the characters’ cluelessness about music is actually the point of the film. I’m not sure it romanticizes the academy — maybe it’s suggesting that the academy doesn’t get it, and that music really is about having fun. It’s a decent movie, but in the end, there’s nothing to aspire to in there.

There’s an amazing movie to be made about drumming and music — in fact, I really loved Drumline from 2002. In that film, there’s competition, but it’s nuanced. There’s camaraderie, there’s love and there’s dedication to something beautiful and transcendent, and it’s fun. Music is fun.

That’s why Neyman quits drumming in the middle of Whiplash — because it’s not any fun for him. And that’s why he’ll never make it — he’s in it for the wrong reasons. It becomes a pissing match between him and Fletcher. In the end, he kind of wins, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory. There’s some kind of manufactured joy at the end of the film but it’s completely empty. The prize turns out to be a lie perpetuated by a hollow man, a false idol.

Without giving anything away, I’ll tell you that the movie ends with a drum solo.

John Colpitts, aka Kid Millions, is the drummer and founder of Oneida and Man Forever. He has performed with Boredoms, Spiritualized, Akron/Family, Marnie Stern and Yo La Tengo. Follow him on Twitter here.