The 2014 film Whiplash portrays a young jazz drummer’s (Miles Teller) tumultuous relationship with his professor (J.K. Simmons) at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory. The student, Andrew Nieman, aspires to be one of the greats of jazz. His mentor, Terence Fletcher, puts him through a series of mindfucks and episodes of physical and verbal abuse in order to elevate Nieman to that exalted realm—or maybe he's just a sadistic bastard on a power trip. Nieman is so driven to excel that he aborts his relationship with his girlfriend to focus on his playing and alienates his family and friends (except maybe for his father), who don't appreciate the extreme effort and sacrifices he's making.
Directed by Damien Chazelle, Whiplash is an intense drama that makes music school seem as fraught with problematic authority figures and nail-biting tension as a sports team and athletic competition. There’s no denying the riveting charge one feels while watching Nieman and Fletcher’s conflagratory interactions.
Whiplash moved me at a deeply emotional level. But not being a musician, I thought I’d get some perspectives from drummers, who could offer a more technical viewpoint about the film. The first interview is with Pat Thomas, a former Seattle/current LA resident who drums for the California group Mushroom. Thomas is also the author of Listen, Whitey! The Sights and Sounds of Black Power, 1965–1975 (Fantagraphics) and does A&R work for Light in the Attic Records.
Pat Thomas: [Whiplash] struck me on so many levels. Both main characters, there’s a little of that in almost every musician. The professor is inside of most musicians and the student is kind of on the outside. You’ve got your inner drive telling you, “work harder or you’re a fuck-up.” On the outside you’ve got this puppy dog, eager-to-please your fellow musicians, your potential fans, yourself. I also thought the professor was a metaphor for a lot of people I’ve encountered in the music business—i.e., assholes. [laughs] Ultimately, although that guy’s not in the music business, per se, he represents “the man.”
Did you go to a music school yourself?
Thomas: I identified with a couple of things. The problem with being a drummer in a high-school jazz band (and I was one) is you can only have one drummer at a time. So I was always fucking benched. It was a so-called A-list guy and me and another guy literally once or twice week for two years in a row, we just sat there like lumps on a log. We rarely got a chance to play. So I totally identify with that. My teacher in junior high was very encouraging and tried to give all the drummers equal time. The guy in high school was the best drummer, but the rest of us were never going to get any better on [that teacher’s] watch, because he wasn’t going to let us play. He wasn’t a screamer [like Fletcher in Whiplash], but he was ambivalent toward helping out the lesser players, so I really identified with that.
Coming from a large family in Buffalo, New York where nobody was into music at all, I thought the best scene was when the kid goes back home to have a dinner with family and friends and they couldn’t care less that he’s a musician. They just want to brag about their other kid’s sports [achievements]. And it’s still like that for me when I go to Buffalo. Writing Listen, Whitey! or working for Light in the Attic doesn’t mean shit. I still have to listen to my family talk about my cousin getting a baseball scholarship. So that scene was awesome to me.
Initially, before the movie started turning dark, I found the teacher humorous. He reminds me of some of my favorite musicians: Lou Reed, Miles Davis, Van Morrison. There’s humor in it until it gets to the point where it’s not funny. The other thing I thought of—and I know they had to be inspired by—were the Buddy Rich tapes.
Do you think to excel at an instrument, you have to be that single-minded and driven, pushed beyond physical capabilities?
Thomas: First of all, when it comes to the arts, you’ve either got some of the basic talent or you don’t. School can make a good student better, but a music school can’t take a talentless kid and beat talent into them. I’m a little pessimistic about music schools. It can teach you the mathematics of music, reading music, music technique. You know as a writer, you can get better at grammar and make your writing tighter, but you’re either an inspired writer or you’re not.
I went from laughing to nearly crying over the course of the movie. When I went home, I had to pour myself a scotch. I was wound up after I left that film. [SPOILER ALERT] A couple of people debated with me over whether a professor would throw a gig just to get even with that kid. I said, "Yeah." He was kind of a psychopath. He’d already been fired by the school, so you’ve got nothing to lose by throwing that gig in the last scene by having the kid play a song he’s never heard before. I thought that was very realistic, actually.
Did anything ring false to you?
Thomas: Not really. Some people said that if this guy was such a monster, he would’ve been kicked out by the school already. Having just been back in school recently—I got my B.A. at Evergreen State College—asshole teachers who are tenured… they don’t care. [laughs] I thought it was very realistic that the professor could get away with that, especially in a private school where they don’t have to answer to the state about regulations. If anything, that guy was a bit of a legend there.
It seems odd that there’s a movie in 2014 set in a music school centering on jazz. We hear how so many people don’t care at all about jazz, but Whiplash made it seem so goddamn important.
Thomas: When Mushroom started in San Francisco in the late ’90s, we were rock guys trying to play jazz. There was sort of a jazz renaissance in San Francisco then of guys in their 20s and 30s playing jazz. The most famous ones would be Charlie Hunter, Scott Amendola, Ralph Carney, although he was much older than us. There was this real ego thing: “Well, you’re not a true jazz musician.” There’s a lot of ego that still happens with people playing horns in 2014. There’s still a jazz snobbery. Some of my favorite musicians—Les McCann, Eddie Harris, Herbie Mann—that’s not considered real jazz. Those guys were looked down upon in the ’70s when they were making big bucks because they weren’t playing be-bop or post-bop. I do think it’s realistic in 2014 that there could be some young people in jazz school with some serious tude, because I met them 15 years ago in San Francisco. I remember Mushroom got a full-page article in Downbeat in 1999 and that pissed off “real” jazz musicians in San Francisco. I’m not talking about old guys; I’m talking about guys my age.
What did you think of the technical abilities of the drum student?
Thomas: I don’t know if he was playing that or if there was a real musician doing it, but I thought the drum solo in the final scene was great. Whoever’s drumming in that film is fucking solid. [According to this article, Teller played the drums, with intensive guidance from Nate Lang, who played his rival in the movie.] I’m guessing they had someone sit in and play the drum parts. It would be pretty hard to learn to be that good of a drummer in six to eight months.
The drummer for Oneida, Kid Millions, wrote a scathingly negative review of Whiplash for TalkHouse. Among other things, he criticized Fletcher’s homophobic and misogynistic language toward his students.
Thomas: I’ve spent the last three years sitting around Les McCann’s house—he’s sitting there naked most of the time, smoking a joint—telling me how fucked up all of his old contemporaries are. The classic jazz scene is not politically correct. I’m not making excuses for anybody, but you’ve gotta be realistic. If you made his dialogue politically correct, you wouldn’t have a movie. Mike Nichols said that art is not supposed to be politically correct. You can push the boundaries like a Charles Kraft. But when you’re making a film, you have to make characters that are real. Otherwise, if you want every character to be politically correct, you don’t have art.
Another things Millions said in the review is that when you play faster, you should be relaxing, but Whiplash portrayed Nieman in an agonized state.
Thomas: That was realistic for a young drummer. That’s a good point, though. At the end of the movie, that drummer is stiff the harder he plays. That’s what you’d do in your first or second year of drumming. One of the first drum lessons I took, the instructor said you’ll get to a point where you should be able to read a book or watch television and play drums at the same time. At first I thought, oh my god, but two or three years in, I could be talking to you on the phone right now. But early on you’re thinking and counting, etc.
Millions also said that the drumheads didn’t look realistic. “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.”
Thomas: Some drums have coated heads where it looks and feels almost like sandpaper. A lot of people don’t use ’em anymore. Those scratch quickly, because it is sort of like a sandpapery thing that was sprayed out of a can onto the top of the head. Most drummers in the last 25 years use smooth heads, and they don’t scratch. The guy who wrote the article is saying that out of ignorance. When I started playing in the ’70s, every fucking drumhead was coated—I don’t care if you were John Bonham or Tony Williams. Because snare drums get hit so much, you’d see snare drums where the coating was worn off and it was clear in the center.
The movie is a bit for insiders. The teacher’s based a little on Buddy Rich. There are parallels to Lou Reed, Miles Davis, and Van Morrison, who treat their bands like that. It’s a metaphor for the music business. I doubt the film was made with the thought it would be a blockbuster. But once in a while Hollywood does producer a quirky film. [J.K. Simmons] played a white supremacist in the HBO series Oz. He likes to play the bad guy, but with unique angles. He played a good guy in Law & Order: a psychologist for the courts. He always gets into these complex roles. I thought he was perfect for the part. The younger guy [Miles Teller] was great, too. That scene where he breaks up with his girlfriend. I knew a guy like that, who took drumming so seriously that he probably did something similar, that stupid thing you do when you’re in your early 20s. One thing I can say about Whiplash: It was real.
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Our second interview is with Benjamin Thomas-Kennedy, who drums for heavy-metal mavericks Lesbian and their improvisational psych-rock alter ego Fungal Abyss (the latter just released the cassette Live at the Triple Door from their 2013 Hypnotikon performance, on Seattle’s Eiderdown Records). Below he presents his thoughts on Whiplash.
Thomas-Kennedy: I haven't really had any sort of music teacher since 6th grade band, but when Miss McGlamory shamed me in front of the class, it just made me realize that I didn't wanna play other people's music other people's way. Music is no fun when someone is in charge. That said, I did win a fastest paradiddle contest in 1989 under her tutelage.
Someone asked me once how I dealt with the embarrassment of one of my bandmates telling me I fucked up. I thought it was a weird question. My bros and I have always been interested in making our shit as solid as can be. We don't need shame. We just all wanna make it better. If everyone is there for the same reason, that should be enough.
This was essentially a sports movie with drums instead of football. In sports, it is important to be the best. In music, being good is only one tool that someone has to have an effect with their work. The drummer has to drive the bus, but that doesn't mean he has to go the speed limit. All the players should organically relate to what is happening in real time rather than attempting to recreate an exact copy of another band's performance of the same piece.
As for technique in the film, I'm no expert on jazz drumming. My technique is terrible and my style in my own, but the drumming shots were cringe-free compared to most music movies (ever see Sweet and Lowdown?). My hands are still throbbing with sympathy pain from all that blood. I don't know how he did it without whiskey.