I wrote a list of my Glastonbury highlights for friends on Facebook and some of them suggested I publish it so here it is.
1. Spending most of Wednesday lying on the grass and laughing with friends, which I don’t get to do enough. It was like a theme park based on my early 20s.
2. Going to Strummerville and hearing an anecdote about a teenager confidently explaining to his friend how it got its name: “There was this guy called Joey Strummerville who loved building fires and then he died. He was a really good guy.” Then realising we weren’t at Strummerville at all. Someone had just set fire to something.
3. Doing a Q&A with Wilko Johnson and Julien Temple and telling Temple, director of the Joe Strummer documentary, about Joey Strummerville. He thought Joe would have liked it.
4. Pussy Riot redeeming an otherwise misjudged, and very long, piece of performance art by screaming the phrase “Shut your fucking up!”
5. Hearing from a Guardian colleague that the Supreme Court had just ruled in favour of gay marriage, instead of hearing about it through Twitter as bloody usual.
6. Mary J Blige bringing ten tons of soul to No More Drama in the pissing rain and receiving an ovation so long that she couldn’t start the next song for ages and started crying. Soul bores who say modern R&B isn’t the real thing be damned: this was as electrifying as Aretha or Otis.
7. Hearing a DJ play King Kunta very loud for the first time.
8. Randomly coming across a band playing krautfolk to about 20 people and realising it was Trembling Bells. Then, when we had to go to review the Libertines, my fellow reviewer’s apologetic thumbs up to the drummer: “We’re leaving but we like you, honest.”
9. The West Holts field, my favourite crowd of the festival, singing along to Caribou’s Can’t Do Without You.
10. Run the Jewels’ repartee. El-P: “We spent our entire stage production budget on making the sun come out for you.” Killer Mike: “Yeah. 83 dollars.”
11. Mark Ronson playing Uptown Funk and introducing Grandmaster Flash, then Mary J Blige, then George Clinton. If Stephen Hawking hadn’t cancelled I’m sure he’d have rocked up too.
12. Seeing enough of Florence to clock that she’s still not my cup of tea but that she was totally nailing her headlining set and never felt like a second choice.
13. The dawning realisation that Hot Chip were covering Dancing in the Dark in spectacular disco style. With Caribou. And merging it into All My Friends. Which all happened just after bumping into a massive group of friends I wasn’t expecting to catch up with.
14. Accidentally seeing Lamb in the Avalon tent while looking for something else. Which meant that…
15. For the first time ever I’d seen 15 bands in one day.
16. Slaves’ inability to say anything without sounding sarcastic and hostile.
17. Seeing a list of all the swear words that appeared in Sleaford Mods’ set. It was very long and included the phrase “shredded wheat cunt”
18. The singer in Burt Bacharach’s band who looked like Barbie’s friend Ken. A shame Burt, who now sings like Tom Waits, played Glastonbury with about the same passion he would bring to a private birthday party for a Russian oligarch.
19. Kate Tempest’s a closing cappella rap/poem/speech about life, Glastonbury and everything.
20. Everything about Father John Misty’s knockout set but especially his response to a request. “A request? Sure. But we have to follow procedure. You need to collect a petition. The petition requires a minimum of 200 signatures. Then it goes to committee. And then we’ll play Freebird.” Father John Misty comes across as the guy who seduced Tobias Jesso Jr’s girlfriend and then wrote a mean song about it.
21. Pharrell reaching the point in the set where he has nothing but hits and playing Blurred Lines followed by Get Lucky followed by Happy because he can do that.
22. The Goan Fish Curry stall. Handy West Holts rendezvous point and source of delight.
23. The blockbuster first half-hour of Kanye’s set, before he lost the crowd. People watching at home should note that on TV it looked better and sounded better and gave you no sense of the audience reaction beyond the front rows. Later I saw that social media seemed to be divided between lovers and haters but almost everyone I was with, or spoke to afterwards, was in a different camp: people who love Kanye and wanted nothing more than for him to blow the doubters away yet felt he’d fallen short. He didn’t need to lovebomb people like Florence or write a special song about Avalon. He could have played basically the same set but with a touch of Jay-Z (or Killer Mike) charm and it would have worked brilliantly. He was that close.
24. A hoarse Patti Smith coming to the lip of the stage during Land and saying, “I’m sorry about my voice but this is fucking awesome.” Her set was nothing like the Horses one she did at Field Day but every bit as good. What a remarkable performer.
25. The Dalai Lama, who doesn’t listen to music, complimenting Patti for being so “active”, like this was an over-60s aerobic class.
26. Filing my last review on Sunday afternoon. Free at last.
27. Lionel Richie’s delighted WTF face. “What the hell is going on?”
28. The girl on her dad’s shoulders during Charli XCX’s fantastic set, losing her shit to Fancy.
29. The mob of dancers from the crowd that Stuart Murdoch invited on stage during The Boy With the Arab Strap. When he did it in London it looked awkward and sloppy but here it looked utterly joyous and even glamorous, perhaps because Stuart has a keen eye for hippy girls with bare midriffs. Then he called Glastonbury “the best little corner of England” and one of my friends burst into tears.
30. The contrast between FKA twigs’ indomitable R&B khaleesi stage persona and her incredibly sweet, polite speaking voice. If she’s this good with just one album, just imagine what she’ll be like with two or three.
31. Watching the Chemical Brothers play Chemical Beats and Setting Sun while I was dancing behind four men dressed as Teletubbies. Hello, the 90s. Then the crowd’s berserk glee during Saturate. Red flares going off, flags waving, people on shoulders, general rave delirium.
32. 2 Many DJs closing their banging techno set beneath Arcadia’s giant fire-breathing spider with Supergrass’s Alright.
33. Then Altern 8 taking over and opening with Orbital’s Chime.
34. The closing party at the Stone Bridge bar. 90s house and two-step garage.
35. The point on Sunday when a part of me was convinced that my life now consisted of seeing bands all day, staying up late and not looking after children.
36. Realising that I’d walked several miles a day while drinking Tennessee Honey. The new workout plan.
37. The company of many of the best people I know, in the best place I know.
38. Oh, everything.
I found out far too late that Guy Carawan, the singer, musicologist and activist credited as one of the writers of We Shall Overcome, died on May 2. When I was writing my book I emailed Guy and his wife Candie to request an interview and he graciously answered my questions. He came across as a warm and humble man who took next to no credit for the song. As a tribute, and for anyone interested in the story of We Shall Overcome, here’s the complete email interview. RIP Guy and much love and sympathy to Candie.
When did you first hear We Shall Overcome?
I learned the song and developed a way of playing it in Los Angeles in the 1950s. I may have heard it from Zilphia Horton when I visited Highlander in 1953 with Frank Hamilton and Ramblin Jack Elliot but I’m not sure about that.
When did you first visit the Highlander Folk School?
Frank, Jack and I made a trip through the South in the summer of 1953. I had mentioned to Pete Seeger that I wanted to see the parts of the country where my parents grew up and he encouraged us to include a stop at Highlander. He told me that they used a lot of music there as part of their work on social and economic issues. We found the atmosphere there wonderful, friendly, welcoming and open minded after visiting many more conservative areas of the South, experiencing racism and being stopped by the police several times.
Zilphia was a very warm and encouraging person and a wonderful singer and musician. She was a good contrast to Myles who pushed people to question and think about their beliefs and actions. Zilphia encouraged people and helped them feel good about themselves, their music, their communities.
Did you consider yourself a protest singer?
I considered myself a musician interested in using my music in a positive way. I was inspired by people like Pete Seeger and musicians and singers I met in the Peoples’ Song Movement in Los Angeles. I was also a young person interested in learning about the world, which is why I went to the Soviet Union and China.
After you, Zilphia and Pete Seeger, Frank Hamilton is the fourth credited writer. Can you tell me about him?
Frank Hamilton was my singing partner in Los Angeles. He was very young, but an amazing musician. He was creative and versatile instrumentally. He was also spending some time visiting black churches in Los Angeles and had a great feel for African American songs. He developed a beautiful chord structure for We Shall Overcome which greatly influenced the way that I played it. I probably met Frank through the Oliver family. Bill Oliver was active in the Peoples’ Songs and hosted a lot of gatherings at his house.
What exactly was your role in adapting and popularising the song?
I developed a way of playing and singing We Shall Overcome that worked well for me and was easy to get people singing with me. My main role in the history of the song is being in the right place at the right time to teach it to student and adult activists both at Highlander and in communities where I was invited. Ella Baker had heard it at Highlander and wanted me to be at the founding meeting of SNCC.
Is it true that a student at Highlander wrote one of the verses?
A teenager from Montgomery, Alabama, Mary Ethel Dozier made up the verse “we are not afraid” during the raid on Highlander in July 1959. People were made to sit in the dark while deputized gun thugs went through their luggage. I was there, but I had already been taken off to jail by the time the song was sung. Septima Clark was in charge of the meeting (Myles was out of the country) and she was arrested. When I and another volunteer protested, we were arrested as well. We spent the night in jail and during the night we could hear Septima singing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” to keep her spirits up.
Do you believe there is a definitive final version of We Shall Overcome?
We Shall Overcome evolved and continued to evolve throughout the active days of the Civil Rights Movement (1960-66). As it passed through different campaigns it tended to take on the cultural flavor of each area. In Albany, Georgia, which was a rich musical area it took on a new beat and some additional decorations. In Birmingham it was given a gospel feeling by the movement there. You ask about a “final version” and I don’t actually think there is one.
Was there a hunger in the movement for new songs?
I would say there was some resistance to the older spirituals in the early 1960s, especially by the young people. Some felt those older songs were associated with slavery and oppression. But many of the freedom songs which eventually became useful and powerful were adaptions of the older familiar melodies. And by the Black Power period, there was an embracing of older cultural forms and artists.
How did your activism evolve?
Because of my work at Highlander I was invited to many southern communities in the early 1960s. In particular I became Mrs. Septima Clark’s driver in the South Carolina Sea Islands as she developed the Citizenship School program. She had seen how music could be useful in helping people feel empowered to develop their literacy skills. In this area I became familiar with some of the oldest African American cultural traditions still alive in the US. It was an enriching experience and Candie and I eventually moved there to live for two years.
As I traveled to communities across the South it could be both exciting and also scary. I was arrested several times. And a place like Mississippi was a very frightening place in the early 1960s. However, I was invariably welcomed warmly in the black communities and made to feel appreciated. I think I was young and naive about how dangerous it could really be.
How did you compile your songbooks?
Most of the songs which went into our songbooks were recorded by me on a large Ampex tape recorder I traveled with. I was fortunate to have a relationship with both Moses Asch at Folkways and Irwin Silber at Sing Out Magazine who encouraged me to send material. In terms of deciding on a definitive version of the songs, we were lucky to have Ethel Raim at Sing Out who was a sensitive transcriber. We tried to explain that these songs were evolving and changing and the printed page was only a suggestion of what the songs could be.
Why did We Shall Overcome wane in popularity as the 60s wore on?
By 1965 people in the Movement were becoming cynical and discouraged about overcoming any time soon. Too many people had died and people recognized how deeply racism was embedded in American society. No wonder people didn’t find the same hope in the song We Shall Overcome. I sometimes felt it was inappropriate to suggest it or lead it in civil rights situations. However, in my own concerts and programs where I talked about developments in the South, I continued to sing the song. It has remained an important song at Highlander.
To what extent do you consider it your song?
We Shall Overcome is definitely not my song. It is a movement song that originated in the black church and has gone on to be useful in people’s struggles all over the world. I feel most fortunate that I was able to play a small role in its dissemination and documentation.
What’s the most memorable context in which you heard We Shall Overcome?
Candie laughed when she saw this question and said “don’t forget to mention that we walked down the aisle to it at our wedding in 1961!
Predictably, there is a lot of talk in Labour circles about where the party should move next, with a side order of “I Told you so”. Blairites want a New New Labour. The left-wing base wants a more left-wing party. Of course they do. That’s a debate that needs to happen but it’s far too early for certainty. I was impressed by Harriet Harman’s refusal to cave in to James Naughtie’s demand on the Today Programme for a snap explanation. There isn’t one, unless you thought you were right along. The Labour leadership, meanwhile, has to address the various mistakes and delusions that led them to be wrong. As a Labour member and an optimist I’ll hold up my hand and say I shared many of those delusions, fostered by the publications I read and kept afloat by the opinion polls, but I don’t feel like deluding myself further. In an effort to race through the Kubler-Ross stages of grief (denial on Thursday, anger on Friday, depression over the weekend) I’m trying to skip bargaining and go straight to acceptance. These factors strike me, with 20/20 hindsight, as almost insurmountable for Labour, and none of them are solely a question of left and right. So when someone says Ed would be in Number 10 now if only Labour had done this or that, I’m sceptical. (This blogpost started as a Facebook post.)
1. The economic crisis, however unfairly, shattered Labour’s hard-won reputation for economic competence and allowed all the old post-70s prejudices to come out of hibernation.
2. The economic recovery, however delayed, however imperfect, however fragile, is real and appreciated by people who don’t care what Paul Krugman thinks. Labour could have pushed the anti-austerity line harder early on but once the recovery happened it became almost irrelevant. Barring another crisis, it will be even less relevant in 2020. Unfortunately, many people feel that austerity basically worked.
3. The coalition exceeded expectations by staying together and appearing generally competent and durable.
4. The Tories didn’t overreach to the right because they needed to keep the Lib Dems onside more than their loopy backbenchers. Cameron & Osborne are pragmatists more than ideologues and sensibly slowed down austerity (as Krugman says) at the right time, not that they admitted it.
5. The post-referendum SNP surge could have been slowed but not by much.
6. English fears of a Labour/SNP deal. Not just a tabloid confection.
7. Tory message discipline was strong to the point of tedium, hammering home a dishonest but persuasive narrative…
8. …helped by the majority of the press that loathed Miliband. The papers, it seems, still have more power than social media to sway voters’ minds.
9. Much though I liked and respected him, Miliband as a leader never connected with the electorate or came close to Cameron in approval ratings.
10. The people who suffered most under the coalition were only a small percentage of the population: less than a million use food banks, less than a million are on zero-hours contracts. And many of them don’t vote. They loom large in the minds of the left, as they should, but are out of sight, out of mind for most voters.
11. The Lib Dem collapse was bigger than expected in many constituencies where Labour was a distant third last time.
12. Disillusioned Lib Dems aren’t as left-wing as we thought.
13. UKIP took more working-class Labour support than expected because some old Labour voters are more anti-immigration than we’d like to think. (Not that UKIP’s appeal on the left is purely down to immigration. It’s complicated.)
14. The coalition didn’t fuck up enough. Most of the time No 10 changes hands when there’s a pervasive feeling that the govt is knackered, too extreme and/or incompetent.
15. It’s very hard to turn defeat into victory in one five-year term. The last person to do it was Thatcher in 1979, and only under exceptional circumstances.
If you say you know how all of these problems could have been overcome I won’t believe you.
In the past week or so I’ve been sent links to a few election-focussed protest songs so I’ve collected them all here.
Collaboration between the former Mr Beta Band and a Super Furry Animal. Ciaran: “What has happened in established politics is nothing short of criminal, testing my faith in humanity. We see blatant, systematic rebalancing of the books, favouring private greed over public wealth, to ensure the deserving majority is left with nothing in favour of an immoral minority. The coalition has worked harder to protect this imbalance than anyone could have imagined, ruling through deception and fear. This is our response to those injustices and, in writing and releasing the tracks, ask that voters consider whether members of the political and business elite really have their best interests at heart.”
Cause of Accident – Sick of This Shit
Captain SKA – Liar Liar (Election Remix)
New version of their 2011 song.
Wilsoni Tha’ Funk Masta – Stand Up & Be Recognised!
Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Taiye Selasi and Francine Prose are very clever people. Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, for example, is one of the most dazzlingly brilliant novels in years. So you would think that at least one of them could muster a justification for their decision to withdraw from the forthcoming PEN gala, at which Charlie Hebdo will receive the annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award, that wouldn’t make you want to bang your head against your desk. Apparently not.
Explanations have come in dribs and drabs. The longest, and worst, was published yesterday by Francine Prose — a former PEN President, no less. It opens with a classic case of the Liar’s But, where the whole paragraph preceding “but” is disingenuous blather: “tragic murders”, “nothing but sympathy”, “abhor censorship”, blah blah blah. This is the language of the politician, not the novelist, lacking both intellectual honesty and emotional truth. It’s only there to pay lip-service to the nine staff members murdered by Islamist gunmen on January 7 so that Prose can get on with the business of denigrating them.
At least she doesn’t indulge in victim-blaming to the grotesque extent that Garry Trudeau did recently, but she saves her most offensive claim till last. “The narrative of the Charlie Hebdo murders – white Europeans killed in their offices by Muslim extremists – is one that feeds neatly into the cultural prejudices that have allowed our government to make so many disastrous mistakes in the Middle East.” Narrative. Neatly. No doubt the victims would have preferred a more ambiguous story arc as long as it left them still breathing. The flipside of Prose’s claim is that the “narrative” is inconvenient for her. (Even in edited form: she fails to mention that copy editor Mustapha Ourrad was Algerian-French; that the Kouachi brothers also killed a maintenance worker and two police officers, one of whom was a Muslim; and that their friend Amedy Coulibaly murdered four customers in a kosher supermarket because they were Jewish.) Just because Islamophobes capitalised on the fact that Islamist extremists went on a killing spree, it doesn’t mean that Islamist extremists didn’t go on a killing spree. Prose is right to say that the murders were seized upon by people with an axe to grind and “many innocent Muslims have been tarred with the brush of Islamic extremism”. But all tragedies are politicised, and the subsequent opportunism doesn’t change the facts. This was a religious execution.
In his statement, Teju Cole brought up the Rushdie affair. “L’affaire Rushdie (for example) was a very different matter, as different as blasphemy is from racism. I support Rushdie 100%, but I don’t want to sit in a room and cheer Charlie Hebdo. This distinction seems to have been difficult for people to understand.” Leaving aside Cole’s contentious claim that the magazine was flat-out racist, it’s a distinction that the Kouachis themselves didn’t make. They weren’t machine-gunning cartoonists for the crimes of racism or Islamophobia. Even the most vile and unapologetic racists are very rarely murdered. No, they were punishing the crime of blasphemy. I’d be interested to learn of any other cases, in any other countries, in which PEN members have snubbed journalists who were murdered on this basis.
One of the great fallacies in the debate about Charlie Hebdo, articulated by Garry Trudeau, is the binary distinction between punching up and punching down, as if there were a ladder of power and a simple diagram to decide between “good” and “bad” satire. If you think the magazine was only attacking French Muslims, then it was punching down, but its obvious target was religious fundamentalism. In the era of Islamic State, Boko Haram and Wahhabism, it’s idiotic to equate religious extremism with powerlessness. Teju Cole listed some people he felt were more deserving of the award, including persecuted Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. Does he not realise that Badawi’s enemies are the same as Charlie Hebdo’s? If the Kouachis had been raised in Saudi Arabia rather than France, they would be the kind of men who would be flogging Badawi with enthusiasm. Outside of rock-solid dictatorships like North Korea, there is no force more brutally intolerant of freedom of expression.
So why does Prose believe Charlie Hebdo doesn’t deserve the award? “Our job, in presenting an award, is to honour writers and journalists who are saying things that need to be said, who are working actively to tell us the truth about the world in which we live.” Well, murderous extremism in the name of God is, unfortunately, a truth about the world in which we live. “That is important work that requires perseverance and courage.” OK. Even if you hate the Charlie Hebdo staff, you’d have to grant them those two qualities. But wait. “And this is not quite the same as drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion.” Why is this not the same? She doesn’t say. Pussy Riot made crude music and offended religious believers by performing in a church, but nobody boycotted their award last year. And isn’t there something insidious about suggesting that mocking religion is unworthy? Unnecessary? Progressives usually go to the barricades to insist that mocking religion is a valid form of freedom of speech.
I’ve genuinely been trying to understand why these six writers feel compelled to take a stand against Charlie Hebdo — why they cannot bear even to sit in the same room while the award is being presented. Perhaps they suspect that PEN is secretly led by racists and neocons with a grudge against Islam. Perhaps they really believe that the magazine, whose regular targets included the political elite and the Front National, was an intolerably racist enterprise. To illustrate the distinction between tolerating speech and endorsing it, Prose actually stooped to a comparison with neo-Nazis in Illinois; Deborah Eisenberg went further and mentioned Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer. There must be something that has led them to throw a basic principle under the bus. Jo Glanville, director of English PEN, clarified that principle in a blogpost yesterday:
Charlie Hebdo is in fact being recognised for its courage: the courage to publish in the face of threats and intimidation, and the courage to continue publishing after the shocking murders in January. We are more used to seeing that courage at a greater distance – in Mexico, Russia, Bangladesh or Egypt – and feel safe celebrating writers and journalists who may be prosecuted for outraging public morals in their own culture. On our own doorstep, when faced with a satirical publication that provokes and offends, there is an underlying view implicit in the protest of Peter Carey and fellow writers that this kind of speech is not worth defending.… Yet one of the most important, if uncomfortable, responsibilities for any free speech advocate is to defend the right to express speech which may be shocking, disturbing or offensive. Without that broad defence, the limits of everyone’s speech, as well as writers and publishers, are at risk of being restricted to suit the political agenda or prevailing morality, at a cost to artistic licence as well as individual freedom.
Charlie Hebdo is not being honoured because it was doing the bravest, most important work in the world — braver and more important than the work of Cole’s preferred candidates, including Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. It is not being honoured for its unfailingly progressive values and always punching in the “right” direction. It is being honoured because nine staff members and contributors were murdered in cold blood by fanatics who found their cartoons offensive. I struggle to come up with a definition of freedom of speech, or of courage, that doesn’t cover what they did, and the price they paid for it.
Salman Rushdie has sharply criticised the six. He knows full well what it’s like to not be the perfect poster-boy for freedom of speech. During the Satanic Verses affair, Roald Dahl, John le Carré and John Berger accused him of reckless arrogance and “insensitivity”. Former president Jimmy Carter called the novel “a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated”. Le Carré has since apologised and those attacks, levelled at a man facing a death sentence for writing a novel, now seem horribly misguided. Not because he wasn’t arrogant (he is rather) or insensitive (that was the point), but because they tried to make him less worthy of solidarity from fellow writers. It was the “wrong” kind of free speech, just as Charlie Hebdo’s is. Such criticisms are absolutely valid in the pages of the TLS or the NYRB but when lives are threatened or taken, the arithmetic changes. There’s an obligation to try to separate matters of taste from questions of principle.
My question for the six boycotters is this: if you cannot physically bear to sit in a room and show solidarity with people who have been murdered for drawing cartoons — murder being the most terminal form of censorship — then what is the point of belonging to PEN at all?
SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t seen Whiplash yet, major plot points are revealed below so you might want to come back later.
I don’t know how Damien Chazelle got the money to make a psychological thriller about jazz drumming but I’m very glad he did. Whiplash, which I saw last night, depicts musicianship with an intensity that I’ve never seen in a movie about rock music: a symphony of whip-pans, zooms and rat-a-tat editing, spattered with sweat and blood. It’s also a tense moral fable about the nature of ambition. As with any good movie, its strengths are clarified when you consider the fiercest critiques.
In a typically entertaining screed, the New Yorker’s jazz-loving film critic Richard Brody said Whiplash “gets jazz all wrong”, but that’s to assume it is trying to get jazz “right”. “What x gets wrong about y” is one of my least favourite approaches to fiction anyway. Apocalypse Now is not an accurate representation of Vietnam, The Third Man takes liberties with post-war Vienna and I’m pretty sure The Shining misrepresents the hotel business. So what? Whiplash is not a Ken Burns documentary. As a visceral depiction of obsession and sadomasochism, it reminded me of Full Metal Jacket (“wrong” about war), Raging Bull (“wrong” about boxing) and Black Swan (“wrong” about ballet). It renders drumming as violent as hand-to-hand combat and presents a piece of music as something to be beaten into submission. The most ironic line in the movie is when JK Simmons’ tyrannical conductor Terence Fletcher tells his terrified band to “have fun”. Fun is not the point.
This is what bothers the “wrong about jazz” crew but I don’t think Whiplash claims that there’s only one way to play jazz, nor that there’s only one path to greatness. Chazelle himself used to be a hyper-competitive high-school jazz drummer (“It was a pretty narrowly focused life”) but he quit, so Whiplash is a personal what-if?. Rather than endorsing Fletcher’s monomaniacal vision, I think the director is examining it — following its brutal logic to the bitter end.
Nineteen-year-old prodigy Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller) is only vulnerable to Fletcher because he fundamentally agrees with him. His drumming idol is the showboating Buddy Rich, not a team player, and he is fixated on technique and stamina above all else. My other favourite recent movie about music is We Are the Best!, Lukas Moodysson’s story of three schoolgirl punks in 1980s Sweden (which, by the way, Richard Brody thought got punk all wrong). That’s about everything music can give you if you don’t have technical chops — camaraderie, catharsis, confidence — while Whiplash is only about the chops. Andrew’s achievement is athletic rather than artistic, with no indication that he has the creativity necessary for genius. Almost every music movie I can think of uses screaming fans to confirm the players’ brilliance. Here, we see a lot of practice but, if I remember rightly, only one shot of an audience, and a nonplussed one at that. Whiplash scythes away everything in music-making to do with pleasure and leaves only the hard work.
Jazz fans have pointed out that Fletcher’s favourite anecdote, about a teenage Charlie Parker being driven to genius after drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his head, is false and Johnson only aimed it at his feet. He was trying to mock Parker, not kill him. Perhaps the mistake is indeed Chazelle’s, or perhaps the distortion is meant to give you a glimpse of Fletcher’s madness. The bully needs to reassure himself that bullying works.
The movie seduces us into a twisted value system while reminding us how twisted it is, creating a slippery dual perspective. Andrew’s single dad is either a loving, supportive mensch or a pitiable, ineffectual schmoe. Nicole, the indecisive college student whom Andrew dates, appears to fulfil that classic role in aggressively masculine dramas of the relationship-focussed woman who stands in the way of the man following the dream on which the narrative depends. But she is so sympathetically drawn that we cringe when Andrew disdains her lack of ambition and then dumps her because he absurdly assumes that a relationship is incompatible with musical greatness. In the dinner table scene, it’s funny when he mocks the high-school football heroes (his cousins? I missed the connection) for not being NFL-worthy but it’s also embarrassing and cruel because he thinks anyone who doesn’t have a shot at being the best is risible.
Several times, we are told that Andrew has no friends; he gazes more longingly at his photo of Buddy Rich than he does at any human being. When he risks life and limb to get to his final competition (for his sake, not the band’s), it’s clear he’s lost his mind. Ambition is the worm in Andrew’s soul, a moral corruption that draws him ever closer to a monster and gives him Randian contempt for anyone who doesn’t desire greatness at any cost.
In the bravura final sequence, during which my heart was pounding in double-time, Andrew veers from humilation to triumph. The audience in the cinema last night applauded. Whiplash resembles a sports movie to some extent but, unlike a sports movie, you cannot unambiguously win, so what kind of victory is it really? Andrew doesn’t give a shit about his bandmates (his long solo is pure selfishness) or the audience, only the approval of a brute. And Fletcher doesn’t care either. Is it an enjoyable show for anyone else? We never find out. The movie has reached its inevitable destination as a closed circuit of Andrew, Fletcher and the drumkit. Nothing else matters. Chazelle has said: “Fletcher’s mindset is, ‘If I have 100 students, and 99 of them are, because of my teaching, ultimately discouraged and crushed from ever pushing this art form, but one of them becomes Charlie Parker, it was all worth it.’ That’s not a mentality I share, but in many ways, that’s the story of the movie.”
And so, fully corrupted at last, Andrew has become Michael Corleone closing the door at the end of The Godfather. Two crucial questions are left open for the viewer. Where does he go from here? Fletcher’s icons of achievement, Charlie Parker and his trumpet-playing former protégé, both died young because they had mastered music but not life. And are Fletcher’s standards correct or is Andrew nothing more than a spectacular technician?
For me, neither question has an uplifting answer. Andrew’s tragedy is that would rather be a great musician than a good person. The kicker is that he might not even be a great musician.