Sunday, March 8, 2015

Whiplash: Docudrama, or movie?

When I watched Whiplash yesterday, I was compelled to watch it again.  It was that good.  As I took in J.K. Simmons's blistering performance for a second time, it occurred to me that jazz musicians would probably react negatively to the movie; sure enough, only a few hours had passed before I heard that a local jazz great was unhappy with how his world was depicted in Whiplash.  That's too bad, because it misses the point of the film entirely.

Similar things were said of the movie Amadeus when it first came out, and it's still a part of the discussion now, in the picture's thirty year anniversary. Similarly, when Black Swan came out five years ago, there seemed to be as much discussion about Natalie Portman's failure to acknowledge her ballet double than there was about the critical and public praise for Darren Aronofsky's psychological thriller.

For a music appreciation course I taught thirty years ago, I showed Amadeus (which had just come out in VHS) to my class of nearly 200 students.  It did not concern me that Salieri was not as evil as he was portrayed.  More important was what I hoped my students might carry with them to this day -- Mozart's towering genius.  To see F. Murray Abraham as Salieri, visibly moved by just one sustaining note on the oboe, sonorously played in the slow movement of Mozart's Gran Partita, is to put ourselves in his place, and to experience first hand what distinguishes genius from great talent. Make no mistake -- Salieri was a supremely gifted musician and composer.  In the film, he is recognized as such by everyone around him, including the court that employed him. But his curse is to know that he will never write anything even remotely as beautiful as what came from Mozart's pen.  (Salieri might have taken some solace in this story: when asked to write an opera for Prague, the great composer Franz Joseph Haydn suggested they ask Mozart instead, who gave them Don Giovanni.)

The fact that the author, Peter Shaffer, took liberties with Amadeus should concern us less than his achievement for having created it. Some artistic license was also taken for Black Swan, which was roundly dismissed by many who work in the world of ballet. But what gripped me throughout the film (in addition to Tchaikovsky's music for Swan Lake, far less well-known than his score for The Nutcracker) is the discipline and tenacity required of ballet dancers.

I should preface this by noting that I have studied dance, and have conducted for ballet, so my familiarity with the life of a dancer is far greater than your average moviegoer.  But in Black Swan -- Portman's Oscar-winning performance aside -- I found the inner drama of angst-filled dancers and what they routinely endure to be utterly compelling. Professional ballet dancers may have more in common with football players in the NFL (average career of 3.3 years) than with professional musicians or actors.  And the dedication and commitment required are similar.

Which brings me back to Whiplash.

Great filmmakers are not just interested in making a great movie; they also want to leave you thinking.  Think of the Red, Blue and White series by Krzysztof KieĊ›lowski, or any film by Sam Mendes, whose Road to Perdition still haunts me to this day. People will long recount Simmons's performance as a jazz band leader in Whiplash, even though such conduct from a conservatory professor would not be tolerated from more than a day. (The fact that some college football and basketball coaches remain in their positions despite their abusive behavior is another story.) But Damian Chazelle's story of the young drummer, Andrew Neiman (played by Miles Teller), for whom there are not enough hours in the day to perfect his craft, is what remains with me.

Many summers ago, I was selected by a nationwide audition to play in the Disneyland Band. Having just finished my first year at Cal Berkeley, I was Andrew's age, still highly impressionable, and had decided to pursue a career as a professional musician. But I was not prepared for what I would witness during my ten weeks in Anaheim, where the most disciplined guys in our band were two jazz musicians from the University of North Texas. All of us in the band practiced, and we all worked hard, but these two young men, saxophonists both, were legendary in their work ethic.

Our job was to play five sets throughout the amusement park, from noon until nine every day, ending with the Electric Parade. In between sets, we would have a short break to relax, or grab something to eat. But I never saw the jazz guys in the cafeteria. Both of them were friendly, but they never hung out with the rest of us. The first thing they did during a break was to look for a corner fence or back alleyway behind the scenes (unseen by park visitors), where they could work on their scales.  That's all they did, over and over again -- scales!  Up and down, two to three octaves, in all varieties.   Major scales, minor scales (harmonic, melodic and natural, and some I did not recognize), chromatic scales, octatonic scales . . . . you name it, they did it.  I wondered at the time: who in their right mind practices this hard? The biggest gift these two young men gave me that summer was the realization that I would never possess the skill or discipline necessary to be a professional horn player. (Fortunately, endless hours of score study was not a deterrent for me as a conductor.)

At The Hartt School of Music, jazz and classical musicians walk the same hallways and stairwells, but they don't hang out together, and I'm not certain if they share any classes.  That's a shame, because there is so much they could learn from one another.

It's great to see composers, dancers and jazz musicians (Charlie Parker, in Clint Eastwood's Bird, is another) up on the silver screen. But we must not forget that the music of Mozart, Tchaikovsky and Duke Ellington is only a starting point for what makes a great film. Critics who wag a disapproving finger at the iconic characters so memorably played by F. Murray Abraham, Natalie Portman and J. K. Simmons are missing the point.