Whiplash has excellent ratings, but I had a hard time enjoying it fully for one simple reason: I have worked as a musician with people who went to schools like the one in the movie.
At its core, Whiplash is about a student drummer at a conservatory in New York City. The movie’s school is called Schaeffer, but it’s maybe a stand in for New York’s actual music school, Juilliard. You could also pretty easily plug Boston’s Berklee into that real school slot.
Reality aside, Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) plays his way into the top jazz band at the conservatory, beating the current drummer for the affections of the tyrannical band’s leader, Dr. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). You may remember Simmons from Burn After Reading or Thank You for Smoking. He’s great.
Dr. Fletcher spurs his students on by berating them, slapping them, throwing things at them, and lying to them when necessary to cause maximum harm. He is the most evil of evil stepmothers, and all he cares about is jazz. He punishes, manipulates, and crushes his students in the hope that the pressure might some day create another Charlie Parker.
Our hero cracks under the pressure to the point that he loses all humanity. He sleeps in his practice room. He plays drums until his hands bleed freely. He dumps his girlfriend — who somehow liked him even though he acted like a smug prick about her college choice — all so that he can impress Fletcher and be one of the “greats.”
And now I would like you to imagine being on a regular old working man’s cover gig with someone like that.
Imagine you’re a plumber. You like your job. The hours are good, the pay is okay. One day you go to a house to unclog a toilet, and you discover you are working with a guy who can’t understand why you aren’t able tell a corn turd from a beer fart merely by the way each makes your eyes water.
That’s what it’s like to be on a cover gig with a music school graduate.
I’m generalizing, of course. Many music school graduates are quite nice. And maybe they deserve to be a little prickly about music theory, given that they’ve spent so much time learning it properly. But then again, if you want to be prickly, go hang out with the porcupines. If you’re so smart, what are you doing on this gig with me?
You should see Whiplash, if for no other reason than to see J.K. Simmons act. As I said, it’s got very high ratings. But be warned: sooner or later if you are playing music you will have occasion to play a gig with one of those guys. If they want to get annoyingly picky about chords, maybe just relax and let them. Remember, sometiems it’s all they have.
Catch Whiplash at the Tara on Cheshire Bridge, or some other theater that isn’t as cool as the Tara.