Recently, I had the great privilege of attending a concert of one of my favorite instrumentalists, Daniel Lanois. That night, he played with an incredible pair of skilled musicians, Rocco DeLuca (on guitar) and Kyle Crane (on drums). While DeLuca and Lanois seemed to almost become one musician on-stage, blending vocals and samplers with electric and pedal steel guitars, it was the inclusion of Crane’s complimentary and absolutely sensational performance that made me not only reevaluate my love of the drum, but recall the tremendous cinematic achievement of a music film that was 2014’s, “Whiplash.” A movie many esteemed professional drummers have shunned, while just as many cinephiles have drooled-over it and consider it, already, to be an instant music film classic. Its overall intention seeks to answer the question of how far we will go to reach our true potential and just who, exactly, is in the driver’s seat for the ride.
Director Damien Chazelle tells the story of an aspiring young jazz drummer, Andrew Neiman (played by the brilliant Miles Teller), as he strives to become one of the best. Working both alongside and at odds with a tyrannical conductor of an elite jazz band, Terence Fletcher (a role J.K. Simmons absolutely nails), at a music school in New York. Initially, Neiman seems eager to maintain a balance in his life as a drummer striving to prove himself amidst his casual, average young adult life, connecting with his dad on movie nights and mustering up the courage to begin dating a girl he’s fancied, that works at the movie theater he frequents. What begins as a sign of a stable, everyday life turns into a questionable semblance of order upon Fletcher giving him a foot in the door, drumming in his exclusive band. Neiman must then confront the reality many of us face in our own lives: should we choose to seek out our creative potential, going all-in on what we consider to be our truest passion and purpose in life, or manage these creative pursuits at a less taxing capacity, seeking to live a comfortable, more assured existence, preferring complacency over complexity.
The film develops a menacing rift between Neiman’s envisioned perfectionism under the leadership of a belligerent, domineering music instructor and the standard comforts of what he sees as a normal, everyday life of going to school, spending time with family and his newfound attempt at romance. The limitless energy with which “Whiplash” encapsulates its viewers is neither uplifting nor upsetting, as Fletcher flippantly alternates between bolstering Neiman’s motivation and resolve with a series of back-patting, adulation, and moments of private, conversational bonding only to use such candid information and pleasantries against him during tumultuous scenes of band practice.
To call the film an emotional roller coaster is inaccurate, as roller coasters have tracks and mechanics to guide its occupants in a clear direction and at an overtly fast, yet safe pace with a defined end. “Whiplash,” however, erratically jostles its audience into various tangents of Neiman’s conflicts with chilling self-doubt and abuse, forcing us to question the importance of a dream if it means decimating every one of our fundamental values and the relationships with those we care about. Worse yet, what if we are baited into our own self-destruction by another that masks their support and respect for us in guilt and fear-mongering?
Early on in the movie, we’re given a telling bit of dialogue, between Neiman and his father, when the latter states, “When you get to be my age, you get perspective.” To which Neiman defiantly responds, “I don’t want perspective.” There becomes no middle-ground for a hungry, gifted musician, Neiman comes to believe- failure is being average, and accepting its conditions and personal victory and the recognition that comes with it is worth the risk.
Near the film’s end, having suffered from his paramount moment of humiliation, after having had the rug pulled out from under him, we see our battered protagonist approach a clear fork in the road: to admit defeat, both internal and interpersonal among his father and oppressive band leader, or take all of that disgust and shame and dish it right back at its source, seeking instead, to prove himself and discover his rawest, most unabashed creative potential. What follows is one of the most powerful musical statements and displays of emotional release seen on the big screen in some time – a truly unforgettable and equally open-ended finale to a long, hard-fought battle for the self and its journey to greatness.
The film has come under much scrutiny, as its performances by actor Miles Teller, musically speaking, were a clever mix of live and overdubbed audio/video editing. Most of what you see on-screen is Teller putting his all into live drumming, while the music, itself, seems to have been ghost-drummed, so to speak, by a number of talented, more importantly, as of yet unnamed professionals.
I was at the back of the audience at the Daniel Lanois show, so I definitely did not hear his banter with the crowd in between songs as clearly as I could have, but the moment came when Lanois acknowledged his drummer, Crane, who he jokingly undersold as being, essentially, ‘pretty good’, and that he had discovered him at a club, down the street from the studio he records at, in Los Angeles. From what I could tell, Lanois then mentioned something along the lines of, “…Kyle, here, also leant his skills to a lot of what you may have heard in last year’s movie, “Whiplash”…he’s got such a great heart and it’s a real pleasure having him playing with us on this tour…” Subconsciously, I had had the sense, before that apparent reveal, that there was something truly remarkable and distinguishing about Crane and his total domination of the drums, that night, so having one of my favorite recent live concert performances tie in so seamlessly with one of my favorite recent films left me with such an unparalleled feeling of gratification.
Seeing both the Hollywood actor drummer and the live, touring drummer put everything on the table for their audience and make such powerful statements for their respective talents reminds me of something very striking J.K. Simmons recently said at a panel about the movie, quoting Miles Teller, “It’s easier to be exhausted than to act exhausted”. It was obvious that the movie was about a visceral endurance test, showcasing a haunting look into humanity’s struggle with success and its many hardships. Regardless of Miles’ performances’ musical authenticity of technique and form, if you enjoy jazz, drums, or, really, the idea of anything moving you, emotionally, with sound, “Whiplash” is sure to leave you speechless, conflicted, and amply exhausted over what is wrong and what is right in love and music.