Monday, April 25, 2016


Year 8, Day 116 - 4/25/16 - Movie #2,316

BEFORE: You probably figured this was where I was heading, with the last film being about music, and capping off the J.K. Simmons chain.  Hell, you can probably tell what I'm watching tomorrow, since this film doesn't have too many other stars in it.  No matter, it's all onward and upward.

THE PLOT: A promising young drummer enrolls at a cut-throat music conservatory where his dreams of greatness are mentored by an instructor who will stop at nothing to realize a student's potential.

AFTER:  This film brought up a lot of memories from high-school and junior high - back then I was heavily involved in the music program, playing clarinet in the orchestra and singing in the chorus (and in local stage-plays, but that's a whole other thing...)  I think music programs are very important, and if I hadn't been bitten by the filmmaking bug, who knows, I might have pursued singing or acting as a career, though I don't think I have the looks for either.  

My mother was a music teacher, at the grade-school level, fortunately for a neighboring town, and not the one we lived in.  (If you have your own parent as a teacher, there's all kinds of possible conflict...) At the grade school level, music programs are pretty chill, but still I'd hear her complain about the occasional "difficult" student, like ones who acted up or refused to participate.  So I can kind of view this film from both perspectives - that of the student, and that of the teacher.  

There were three times in junior high or high-school where I felt that I'd been sucker-punched by a teacher, one was the infamous "Pygmalion Incident", where my English teacher asked the class to write a sequel to the famous G.B. Shaw play, and I was told I could write "anything", even if it had UFO's and aliens in it.  But the teacher got sick and was out for a while, meaning that the papers were graded by another teacher, who tore my Shaw fan-fiction apart.  "But wait," I thought, "I was told I could write ANYTHING, so how can this be judged as bad?"  The replacement teacher saw things differently and gave a terrible grade to my Higgins/Doolittle fan fiction - it retrospect I think he was just down on any portrayal of hetero romance.  

But twice I felt betrayed by a music teacher, he'd been teaching junior high band forever, and when time came to march in the Memorial Day parade, he took me off the clarinet and put me on the bass drum, probably because I was the only kid big enough to carry it down the street.  And you'd think that when you move a kid from woodwinds to percussion, there'd be some kind of instruction to aid in the transition - nope, not one bit.  OK, I figured, this must be a cakewalk, or else he really believes in me, or barring that, maybe I'm just hear to do the grunt work.  Turned out the marching beat was pretty easy to pick up, the snare drummers knew what they were doing, so I just had to learn to hit the drum at a particular rhythm.  But then came the performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner", and I guess he just naturally assumed that I'd know what to do.  

Now of course, I'd heard our national anthem before, many times.  But I'd never listened to it to pick up the bass drum part, and now there I was, expected to play it.  No sheet music, no instruction, no nothing.  And admittedly, I'd forgotten to ask about all of the details this task entailed when I agreed to it - but it's also a case where the teacher forgot to, you know, teach.  So he started conducting the anthem and realized that the bass drum wasn't playing, then have me this enormous hand-signal, which could have been seen from space, telling me to start beating the drum.  OK, you asked for it, I got through it, but a little instruction over when to play (and, more importantly, when to stop) would have been nice.  

The second time was the spring concert, maybe a year later.  I was back on the clarinet, and the same teacher, who'd had my mother as a student years before (and she must have been some kind of prodigy, because he was expecting a clarinet virtuoso, and I just wasn't that), found himself with an abundance of clarinet players, and decided to take advantage by choosing a piece of music called "Clarinet Escapade"There were a lot of fast notes, mostly in the upper register, and I don't know what this guy was thinking, but none of the three clarinet players were up to the task.  And he wouldn't listen to reason, I guess maybe he thought that we'd compete against each other to see who could play the solo the best, and a victor would emerge and blow everyone away at the spring concert.   Yeah, that's not what happened.  The three of us fumbled through it, but it was perhaps the longest 5 minutes of my life, being forced to just murder a piece of music in front of the whole town. 

I think back on it now, and I wonder if this teacher was senile, crazy, or just expected too much.  Did he think one of us would lock himself away in a room and play "Clarinet Escapade" for 12 hours a day, until we could nail it?  Dude, I'm like 12 years old, I've got real homework to do, they're making me learn French, and I've got a paper route.  Really, what recourse did I have?  I think I made myself pretty clear that playing this piece of music was beyond my ability.  Should I have walked out?  Set off the fire alarm?  I feel bad that we let the man down by playing poorly, but he just would not listen to reason.  If I'd been an adult in a kid's body, maybe I would have pointed out that since he was the teacher, and we couldn't play the music, maybe he was an incompetent teacher - I wonder how that would have gone down. 

When I got to high-school, I played clarinet in the orchestra for three years, but I did not join the marching band or the swing band, because that all seemed like too much pressure.  I tried to transition to the saxophone, but didn't really see the point.  Anyway, I'd had more luck auditioning for district chorus than district orchestra, and I had identified a lack of male bass singers in the school, so once my voice changed, there were more opportunities for advancement as a singer at the time.  The marching band seemed sort of cult-like, and I figured my mother would never let me do that anyway, since it meant traveling for competitions, and she'd probably have a fear of me tripping and accidentally putting a clarinet through my brain.  (Hey, I'm sure it's happened to someone.)  

But let's get to "Whiplash", for which J.K. Simmons won that Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  It's really the role he was born to play, since he studied music, had planned to become a composer, and had prefaced it by playing a sadistic Nazi skinhead prison inmate and a demanding, sadistic newspaper editor.  For some people, I think "sadistic music teacher" is a tautism, or some kind of redundant statement.  But there are many sides to this character, and maybe in the end it's not so clear-cut as to whether he's a strict disciplinarian, or someone who just demands the best from his students and is pushing them to achieve beyond the limits that they set for themselves.  Certainly I can see aspects of a drill instructor in his statements, poking fun at his students, getting under their skin, and berating them for the smallest mistakes, or perceived mistakes.  

The student here, Neimann, certainly aspires to greatness, and seems willing to do whatever it takes to achieve it, whether that's giving up his free time to practice, or not seeing the point in having a personal life that can only take him away from his art, or at best conflict with it.  The logic goes that if art demands sacrifice, then if you don't sacrifice, you can never be great - but I'm not sure that I agree.  But I do support the notion that no one is innately talented, and that the only path to success and fame (assuming that there IS one, which is not a given) leads through hard work and practice. 

However, we're shown extreme examples of sacrifice here, and also extreme examples of a teacher pushing his students.  Falling back on the story of Charlie "Bird" Parker, who didn't have his best performance until someone allegedly threw a cymbal at his head for making a mistake does not seem to justify, in and of itself, this level of physical and mental abuse.  And every small success that Neimann has seems to be followed by a new plateau of expectation - so where does it end?  Apparently not until that performer is capable of going so far beyond the sheet music and the charts that he somehow transcends the human limitations, and puts forth a drum solo that can not, will not be stopped or accept any boundaries.  

But that's hotdogging it, isn't it?  When a student starts to control a performance, and cue in his conductor, rather than the other way around?  To me that seems unacceptable, and egotistical to boot. Some of the actions of the star drummer here almost made me root for the teacher - but I wish I knew more about drumming, or at least had more appreciation for jazz, so I could better discern what exactly was going on during the final performance shown here.  Did the end justify the means?  Did Niemann get pushed to such an extreme explosion of drumming talent that it overshadowed everyone else in the band AND the conductor?  If so, not cool - unless that was the result that Fletcher was trying to achieve - and I think that's left open to some interpretation, no?

I think there are two schools of thought when it comes to teacher-student relationships - one is that you get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar, by which I mean that a little courtesy and encouragement can go a long way.  But the other school of thought is the one seen here, based on the concept that the teacher's not there to make friends, and that the worst thing you can say to a performer is "Good job!" because then they can develop an ego and stop striving to be better.  There's a part of me that believes the second line of reasoning, because when you make it to the big leagues (in whatever your chosen sport, craft or profession might be) it's time to wear your big boy pants, and you should KNOW when you've done a good job.  Your reward for doing a good job, beyond payment, should be that you get to come back tomorrow and do it again.  

The last time I heard "Good job!" from my boss was about 2 weeks ago, when I'd spent two days on travel sites trying to book three round-trip tickets to France, and kept getting return trips with a 13-hour layover in Paris (which was some huge B.S., by the way, I don't know why any airline would suggest such an itinerary, wasting over half a day of people's time.  You can't tell me there are no planes leaving Paris for New York within a 13-hour window...)  Finally, I was able to book the trip for three people, two different itineraries, on three different airlines, for under a thousand dollars per person.  And I KNEW I did a good job, I was frustrated, exhausted and exhilarated at the same time.  (Still, it was nice to hear some recognition.)  

But I don't subscribe to the belief that in order to do something, you have to be the BEST at it, or it's not worth your time.  If that were the case, then almost nothing would ever get done - imagine if everyone were a perfectionist, you wouldn't even be able to get a cup of coffee without your barista obsessively re-making your latte until it was just so.  Can't we just say that "any job worth doing is worth doing well" and leave it at that?

NITPICK POINT: When a college music group performs in a different city, don't they usually hire a bus to take them there?  Relying on all of the individual members to get themselves there by public transportation seems a little unreliable - it seems to me that if Fletcher was so obsessive about every part of the performance, why wouldn't he demand the same details when it came to travel?  Why leave any of that process to chance, because there are like a hundred things that could go wrong to prevent a band member from making it to the performance.  When I sang in the NYU Chorale, we did a holiday concert out in Kearney, NJ and everyone had to show up and get loaded on to a bus to go out there together.  

NITPICK POINT #2 (tangential to N.P. 1) - Neimann is first year of college, so he's what, 18?  19?  And he rents a car?  When I was that young, I couldn't rent a car in New York State until the age of 25.  (This was filmed in L.A., but takes place in NY.  The music school is fictional, but another character mentions attending Fordham, which is in the Bronx.)   I guess maybe things have changed in New York since I was that young - but even still, the insurance fees and security deposits for renting to someone that young would have been a deal-breaker.

Also starring Miles Teller (last seen in "Project X"), Paul Reiser (last seen in "The Story of Us"), Melissa Benoist, Nate Lang, Austin Stowell, Chris Mulkey (last seen in "Captain Phillips"), Suanne Spoke, Charlie Ian, Jayson Blair.

RATING: 7 out of 10 Band-Aids   

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