“Whiplash” - The Little Drummer Boy

November 23, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

I played my drum for him
Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for him
Pa rum pum pum pum

If you’ve seen “Whiplash,” you’ll get the irony. If not, watch the trailer.

Like most trailers, it pretty much tells you the whole story, though it inflates the boy-girl theme, which in the actual movie is an afterthought, a bit of romantic relief in lieu of comic relief (the movie has zero laughs). After all, we can’t have 105 minutes of non-stop sadism, intimidation, and humiliation. And blood. A lot of blood. Much more than you’d expect in a movie about jazz drumming. But then, this movie is not really about jazz.

Getting back to the Christmas carol, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons – the music teacher as drill sergeant) is no Baby Jesus, but he is a charismatic figure albeit a negative one.  He leads the band via charismatic authority. Andrew (Miles Teller) and the other students are in his thrall. They want only to please him and avoid his cruelty.  It is for him that they practice, it is for him that they play (“Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum, on my drum?”).

“Whiplash” is shot mostly in dim music rooms, and the lighting gives the movie a film noir feel.  But the link to gangster films is more than visual.  The constellation of conflicts and characters too reaches back to film noir. . .

. . . a night-time dream world . . . where the hero is involved in a conflict of crime and punishment with the older man, his boss, often the lord of the underworld

That’s from a book published in 1950, Movies, a Psychological Study, by Martha Wolfenstein and Nathan Leites.  They sort out the dominant themes in American, Brtish, and French films of the late 1940s. Watching “Whiplash” you get the sense that little has changed. In the “night-time world . . .  the hero grapples with a dangerous older man and wards off entanglement with a desirable and yearning woman.” Even from the trailer, you can see that this is a good description of the place of romance in “Whiplash.” The character of Andrew’s father (Paul Reiser) is also foretold by Wolfenstein and Leites.  “The hero’s father is usually a sympathetic character, and almost always ineffectual.”

As in film noir, the conflicts are largely external. The hero need not admit the possibility of his own dark impulses.  That goes for the audience as well. These are all projected onto the bad guy.

It is the hero’s boss who attacks him and who commits numerous crimes for which he frequently tries to inculpate the hero. The violent impulses [of the hero],* acknowledged in much [other] Western tragedy, find a reverse expression here. The [hero] is in the clear because the older man attacks him first. Everything he does is in self-defense. Any bad actions of which the heroes of other dramas may accuse themselves appear as a frame-up against which the hero must fight. He would be amply justified in killing the unfairly attacking older man.

Andrew’s motives are pure mostly.  He starts off nearly as innocent as the little drummer boy, though with more ambition. He wants to work hard and become a good drummer, maybe the best. But then Fletcher insinuates himself into the boy’s dreams to distort those motives into a self-destructive obsession. It feels like a case of demonic possession, and Fletcher is the demon.

Because the conflicts are externalized, because the film dumps all negative impulses into the character of Fletcher, there can be only one resolution. The trailer doesn’t give away the ending, but you can guess. There’s going to be a showdown between Andrew and Fletcher.  Why? Because, as I’ve remarked several times in this blog (here for example), American films often hinge on the assumption that all problems can be solved by a climactic confrontation. The problems might be external – politics, crime, etc. – and the good guy and bad guy slug it out to see whose vision of the society will prevail.  But even when the conflicts are internal – the hero’s moral and psychological state – they are resolved by a contest, often athletic. Rocky and The Karate Kid find their true inner virtue in the ring. But the arena might just as easily be a chess tournament, a pool hall, a dance floor. Or a band performance.

In reality, transposing the film noir set-up to a jazz band is a bit of a stretch. In these movies, the question is who’s going to run this show – the good guy or the bad guy (as in “On the Waterfront,”  “High Noon,” and surely many others).  But in the real world, jazz students in band class aren’t learning to stand out as leaders.  Just the opposite – they’re learning to play as part of a band. Horn players learn to blend with their section. Rhythm section players have more latitude; where horn parts are carefully written note for note, the score for piano, bass, guitar, and drums will have sections that are less specific – chord symbols or general rhythmic indications. But rhythm players too, including drummers, must learn to meld with the ensemble.**

Unfortunately, a hero learning to be an integral part of a whole would not make for much of a movie, at least not an American movie. But to repeat, this movie is not about jazz, learning it or playing it. It’s about the conflict between the young hero and the lord of the underworld.


* Wolfenstein and Leities, writing in 1950 and much influenced by Freud, put this in Oedipal terms: “the violent impulses of sons toward their fathers.”

** There are one or two exemplary musical moments in “Whiplash” where you hear a well-rehearsed band doing some great ensemble playing.  That said, there are real-life drummers who do lead the band, loudly, and let the audience make no mistake as to who is the star of the show.  Most notably there was Buddy Rich, who seems to be an inspiration for the characters in “Whiplash” and perhaps for the filmmaker as well. Buddy had more than a touch of Fletcher, as you can hear in some of his rants on the bus, tearing into his young musicians, rants that were surreptitiously taped by the band’s pianist Lee Musiker. Listen here.

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