Saturday, March 21, 2015

Whiplash, snidely..

For a couple months now, I've been hearing about this controversial movie released last year- Whiplash- about the tyrannical music teacher and the students he's affected. It's been all over Facebook, much discussion there, and I'm sure the other places as well(as far as I'm concerned, Facebook is the only stop I make on the social media express, and even that is often one too many), and my curiosity finally got the better of me. 

Well, the acting is terrific. JK Simmons turns in a wonderful performance as the teacher(you may know him from the Farmers' Insurance ads and a brief TV comedy about a blind attorney)and likewise Miles Teller as the student. Teller is a drummer in real life, and contributes about 40% of the sounds you hear. I will give them that. 

The character of Terrance Fletcher is an amalgam of Buddy Rich(as heard on the infamous band tapes excoriating his musicians on the bus ride from their gig for the performance they just gave)and the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket. He does have his own brand of volatility, but basically fashioned after those two "warriors".

I could see the writer's wheels turning as he created this character. In the case of the drill instructor, practically lifted him off the page, from the homophobic remarks toward his students('that's not your boyfriend's dick')to the scene where he slaps the student repeatedly to demonstrate the difference between rushing and dragging. In Full Metal Jacket, the sergeant slaps a soldier back and forth to demonstrate the difference between left and right. 

There's nothing wrong with combining traits to come up with a unique blend of a character. I'm thinking of the ephemeral young Dell rep- 'dude, you're getting a Dell!' Yeah, that guy! Steven something, who was a composite of Eddie Haskell(the unctuously polite kid from Leave it to Beaver who immediately dropped the manners once the grown-ups were out of the room)and the Keanu Reeves character from Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Never could keep them straight, which one was which..

But I thought that was a marvellous combination: the smart-ass and the air-head. Unlike the practically cut-and-paste job in Whiplash, a subtle jelling. Too bad the actor got busted trying to buy pot. 'Dude, you're getting a cell!'

So yeah, getting back to the teacher(I do digress sometimes!)I thought that was a bit derivative- both the slap and the homophobic remarks. But more than the obvious source material, I had a problem with the teacher himself. With his martial arts methodology. Unless you're training a fighter, striking a student is  so inappropriate I don't even know where to start. For that matter, so is brow-beating a student into submission. We see as the movie progresses how this can affect a student even more than the physical abuse of a slap. 

The movie tries to take a tone of realism, in the school atmosphere, the conversations you hear, his sense of fitting in with the other students, his attempted romance with the concession girl. All well and good. But from there, everything is hyperbolized-for-Hollywood. The teacher's "tough love", the Herculean tasks he puts his drum students through- and of course the Charlie Parker story. 

Okay, I wasn't there personally. But the story goes(at least by all semi-reliable sources)that the cymbal was thrown at Charlie Parker's feet! Jo Jones wasn't trying to decapitate him, just shake him up a little bit. 

Every musician has a story where he's humbled in some way- maybe in a lot of ways at once. It happens. Not much fun, but it's part of the growth process. So, again, that part they got right. They just- embroidered it.

My main objection to the movie though, is again the teacher's methods, which of course is the crux of the movie. It's one thing to push a student, but when it becomes emotional and physical abuse, then the line must be drawn. The character, late in the movie, says, "I know I pushed people.But I'm never gonna apologize for how I did it!" 

On the contrary, he should apologize profusely for how he did it. He should perform Community Service for how he did it. That sort of behavior is reprehensible. I'm not even sure it belongs inside a boxing ring..

He also says, "the worst thing you can say to a student is good job!" I see what he's saying(I think anyway): that you don't want your student ever to be complacent, but I think you can moderate this--like much else in the movie. If used sparingly, so they feel like they earn it, I think the best thing you can say to a student-when it's warranted- is good job

 When all is said and done, it's about the student. His or her needs.  The minute that stops, you've got a problem, Houston.  All these histrionics of Terrance Fletcher leave that priority behind and end up being much more about Terrance Fletcher. He's got some serious problems, emotional problems that have to be dealt with before he'd be fit to teach again. Maybe a sequel: Whiplash II, after he's had a year or two of therapy.                                                  

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Playing IN

These pictures were taken during my vacation in St Pete Beach, Florida. I'm the guy on the left. We did a ton of playing over my week down there, both guitar and piano duo and with a bassist and drummer. My friend on the piano there has them come over every week for a good 3 hours of musicmaking. There's always a meal, and then down to it. 
The sessions with bass and drums are more along the lines of a rehearsal/reading band. They're there to work on stuff, just for its own sake. Tunes are selected by each musician, in a rotation, so with a quartet you're calling every fourth tune. Each tune is rehearsed in entirety and then for trouble spots, and then recorded. My piano player buddy has a very nice rig which can make studio-quality CDs, even though we're not recording for posterity.. 
This bassist and drummer are full-time musicians- like the Fabulous Baker Boys, never had a dayjob in their lives. "Lifers" as my piano player friend calls them. And as you'd figure, they play very well. The drummer in particular is a seasoned veteran, having been a working musician in New York for some years. 
I got to do two such sessions with them. The playing itself is lots of fun, as they are wonderful players. It's also a bit of a teaching session. They work a lot with the piano player on various things. The drummer will deliberately speed up at times to make him play the songs' melodies faster; and other times bring the tempo down if it starts to rush. 
When you work with a drummer this good, it's hard not to play in rhythm. You just naturally align with what they're doing. I did pick it up just a little on one tune, for which he chided me a bit: "Yeah, ya got frisky". Otherwise, I felt like I kept great time. His time.
For my piano player friend, these weekly sessions are his bread and butter. There aren't too many playing opportunities in the area, and apparently not much of a database of musicians to work with even if there were, so working from home seems to be the elegant solution. Playing in, as it were. 
This gave me food for thought, as far as my activities back here in Illinois. Maybe I can get something similar going myself- at least on a monthly basis if not weekly.

Normally we musicians are out there looking for the perfect place to play, directing our energies outward to whatever local establishments exist(and will still have us). Playing out, as it were. This is usually the goal of any band. The gig: where you finally get to do your stuff in front of a live audience, as opposed to the "synthetic environment" of someone's garage or basement. An important part of any musician's development. 

But what if you can't get a gig you like? Or you still want to play but are sick of the noise and crowds? This latter scenario is mine, and I try and handle it by playing lower-keyed gigs(no pun intended), in smaller places with fewer folks. And, I'm thinking, with home sessions. Playing in. 

I've been feeling this way for awhile now. Leaving the world of daygig, back in mid-2013, I thought I'd want to play all the time. Play out, that is. And at very first it was great. But I soon tired of the noise and crowds and the whole phenomenon of being up in front of folks- even though the playing itself was still very enjoyable. 

So I'm taking another look at playing in. The joy of playing without the hassle of schlepping my equipment into the vehicle, negotiating a place to park, heading into some crowded, noisyass establishment and banging out tunes for people who may or may not be listening. Of course there will still be a few occasions where I'll be out in one of these dives, but for the most part I plan on making music from the comfort of hearth and hame. 

We'll see how this plays out of course, but for now that's the plan. If our sessions here are anywhere close to the ones I got to do in St Pete Beach, we'll really have something! As an end result, I see more recording than anything. But this is all planning. Gotta get there first.