Expect the Unexpected

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Whiplash: Not quite believable but unbelievably good


Miles Teller with J.K. Simmons  as the teacher from Hell, in a scene from Whiplash.

Miles Teller with J.K. Simmons as the teacher from Hell, in a scene from Whiplash.

Whiplash is the most captivating film I’ve seen in a long time.

Sure, it has holes in the plot the size of the ones in the Dead Sea, but the movie is so intense, that a climactic concert scene elicited loud audible gasps from the audience.

Throw in some bodacious acting, bodacious jazz, and the bodacious ability to be parodied, and you’ve got yourself one bodacious hit.

The plot of Whiplash revolves around a talented college drumming student Andrew (Miles Teller), who is more than willing to hone his craft by practicing until his fingers bleed.

He catches the attention of the college’s renowned jazz professor, Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, who goes by Kim to his friends and family). In a word, Fletcher is abusive. Verbally, mentally, and physically. He has a long history of inflecting emotional distress on his students. But his bands are very successful in musical competitions.

Simmons_Whiplash2That’s where the plot holes start. You have to suspend your belief that a college professor could get away with the crap Fletcher pulls. I attended Whiplash with my husband, Jerry, who was a drumming student at Boston University. He was quick to point out that a teacher like Fletcher would have been fired, real quick.

But that aside, there was so much in Whiplash that rang true, and hit close to home.

College music programs are highly competitive. At BU in the late 1970s, music majors had to decide in their sophomore year if they were going to major in performance or music education. The better students, as chosen by their professors, majored in performance. The rest were assigned to music education, to pursue careers as middle school and high school band teachers.  This firmly divided the class into two tiers — the “haves” and the “have nots.”

The performance majors were cutthroat, jockeying for positions in the school’s symphony orchestra and top bands. Jerry was one of the “have nots,” a music education major — specialty timpani. An easy-going guy, he made friends with a lot of the other drummers, who saw him as no threat. One of his good friends, Rick, a performance major, frequently spent all-nighters practicing on drum set, with the goal of blowing the rest of the class away. If another drummer topped him, Rick’s goal was to work even harder — practice all night and all day. Give up your social life. Eat, drink, and live drumming.

I gave my husband this Valentine.

I gave my husband this Valentine.

Instead of the usual college chitchat about dating, sports, and movies, these guys would talk endlessly about their idol —Buddy Rich. Whiplash was spot on about that.

Drumming majors are obsessed with Buddy Rich and his big sound. They even discuss and analyze at length the little off-the-cuff quips Rich made to the audience on some of his live recordings. As a drummer’s girl friend and then wife, I suffered through a lot of those interminable discussions from my husband and his friends.

What Whiplash got wrong: It’s peer pressure and the competition to be “the best” that motivates drummers, not abusive teachers. Many performance majors fall under the pressure. Humiliated to be assigned to music education, some quit or changed majors completely. Jerry recalled one gifted musician, a child prodigy, who could not handle the stress from the music program and  abruptly withdrew.

As the years have passed, it’s interesting to see where a few of my husband’s classmates ended up.

Jerry never taught music education professionally. He got his CPA degree and has enjoyed a long career in municipal purchasing and finance.

Rick also got his CPA degree and opened his own accounting firm. Musicians are good with math.

Larry, who all the other drummers considered the best, disappeared. A bitter loner, he lost touch with his classmates.

Jerry’s ex-college roommate, Len, an education major, got his Master’s Degree at Boston Conservatory and has had a steady career teaching music in public schools and playing in bands. Kudos to Len for sticking with music!

While I don’t believe Whiplash will win the Oscar for Best Film (I think it should go to Birdman), I do believe J.K. Simmons has the right tempo in the supporting actor race. He brings a driving intensity to the part and his role is huge (he arguably should be in the best actor race). So he should beat out Robert Duvall, Ethan Hawke, Edward Norton (so sorry my dear) and Mark Ruffalo.

You know you’ve arrived, really arrived, in Oscar-land, when Weird Al Yankovic weighs in:

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