Perhaps you’re unaware of it, but there’s an arts education film up for an Oscar this year. And no, I’m not referring to something in the documentary short subject category, but rather a Best Picture nominee.
Though it hasn’t been called out as such in any of the articles or reviews I’ve read, Whiplash is a film about the mastery of music set largely in and around a music school. But it has primarily provoked stories about how the film managed to give viewers the impression that Miles Teller is a masterful drummer, why the film is a terrible banner-carrier for jazz, and why J.K. Simmons, journeyman actor, is long overdue for professional recognition, a great deal of which has subsequently come his way since the advent of awards season.
But what of Whiplash the arts education film? After all, we don’t get all that many, and when we do, they tend to be syrupy uplift pictures like Mr. Holland’s Opus or Music of the Heart. Since Whiplash can’t possibly be accused of being saccharine, why isn’t its musical didacticism being discussed in arts circles?
For anyone working in or teaching the arts, the answer is probably simple: it’s a harsh film in which we see the ugly side of musical monomania, a depiction of college level arts education that would probably send any prospective student running in the opposite direction from a conservatory program. But I’d like to suggest that while music is the movie’s métier, it’s really not about the arts at all, insofar as it mirrors or exists in relation to any cinematic antecedent. Whiplash is, first and foremost, a sports movie-military movie hybrid.
Made for only $3 million, Whiplash has stripped its story to the bare essentials, perhaps for budget reasons, or perhaps solely to focus our attention on a handful of bravura scenes. While it establishes our hero’s passion for music, it spends the majority of its first two acts showing us how he beats his way into an elite music ensemble – and then proceeds to have his hands and emotions beaten to a pulp by a teacher who is music educator as drill sergeant, a hard-ass, perhaps heartless, taskmaster whose idea of teaching seems based in ridicule and torment rather than actual training. While it’s likely that Teller’s character has other teachers and classes, they’re all relegated to the level of incidental or absent in favor of scenes of solo practice or ensemble totalitarianism under the baton of Simmons.
We’ve seen the drill sergeant in countless films – Burt Lancaster in From Here To Eternity, Louis Gossett Jr. in An Officer and A Gentleman, and R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket to name three (with only the last suggesting that the drill sergeant methods might not be all they’re cracked up to be). You could also add Robert Duvall’s The Great Santini into this mix, especially for the scene where he bounces a basketball off of his son’s forehead. We’re meant to wonder whether these men are psychotic or uniquely skilled “builders of character” and that’s the same model that’s in place in Whiplash. They have their equivalents in the average sports movie – think of Gene Hackman in Hoosiers, trying to reclaim his stature after punching a kid at a prior job – and the link between sports movie, military movie and Whiplash becomes fairly obvious. They all share the idea of growth through humiliation.
Now to be clear, I really liked Whiplash as a film, and I’m not inclined to think that it’s representative of arts, or specifically music, education in any way, nor do I think it should be. It’s just one story, probably no more accurate about jazz than Smash was about the theatre, and I liked it for the two lead performances, the steadily rising tension between those characters, and because it was, at least, a film that sought to take the arts with a degree of seriousness – although I bridled quite a bit at the cruelty in the name of something meant to be emotionally resonant and I was troubled by its abject failure of the Bechdel Test or any meaningful depiction of diversity. Without giving away anything, I did think its third act, while thrilling, was ultimately preposterous in its plotting.
I happen to have a deep antipathy for stories with heroic but brutal coaches or brutal but tough-loving drill sergeants; often as not, I find myself deeply angry after watching stories in those genres, since I would never have been able to function in the face of such dehumanizing treatment, and always question whether it’s necessary or even morally right. Despite using that same template, I was able to stay with Whiplash because, while I have seen my share of angry directors and conductors in my day, I’ve never encountered such relentless ugliness in the arts.
The film did force me to review my own musical training, because while I did act in high school and college, I had absolutely no theatre education, but I did dabble with musical instruments. Disregarding compulsory class-wide forays into the recorder and its more simplistic forerunner the flutophone, I took cello lessons in elementary school for what now seems like all of three weeks and took private guitar lessons for perhaps a year and a half in junior high. Much as I loved music, I demonstrated no particular skill on any of these instruments but revealed my inability to submit to anything resembling regular practice. I continued to play the guitar, badly, for fun, for many years, but I haven’t picked one up in any meaningful way in about a decade.
Would I have benefited from a J.K. Simmons in my life? Might I have mastered the guitar – or the piano, as my mother dearly wished – if there had been someone to really push me? I tend to think not, because the drill sergeant as music teacher might have not only turned me away from the instrument, but from music itself, and that would have been a shame, since (recorded) music remains a balm for me in times of stress or sadness. But might I have developed a skill had I been under the guidance of someone who wasn’t content to let me practice lackadaisically or walk away after a brief attempt? That we’ll never know.
As for Whiplash? Good movie, but a work of fiction, more spare than Mr. Holland’s Opus, but equally manipulative. And for god’s sake, if you are thinking of taking up music, or any arts training, or you have a child who shows aptitude and interest, I strong suggest you approach it not as an arts movie, a sports movie or a military movie. At that point, consider it a horror film – as you watch it, keep repeating: it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie, it’s only a movie. At least I hope it is.