Automatic for the People turned 25 last year. The reissue box set sounds great, and reveals how timeless this work is. My children can’t help but react to each song—my daughter’s flailing during Monty Got a Raw Deal is actually a pretty good Stipe impression, and she’s never seen him do it. The famous 40 Watt show from November ‘92 is included, and even though I’ve heard it countless times, this is the first professional mix of it, and it matters. At the time this album came out, I had some ambivalence about it, even though R.E.M. remained my favorite band. With time, I’ve come to embrace those elements I initially couldn’t make sense of or judged as too weak or simple. Its themes of mortality and nostalgia only resonate stronger as life goes on. The year this album came out, Sgt. Pepper’s was celebrating its 25th anniversary, and here we are 25 years later. This fact almost serves as a bonus track. And is there any better two-song closer on any album ever? I’m not sure there is. “The river to the ocean goes, a fortune for the undertow.”
Those who know me know that I am not only a music geek, but I am also a film buff. I studied film, both formally and informally, and consider it one of my passions. A great film, for me, is almost the perfect artistic expression, combining writing, visual artistry, acting, and sound and music. Being passionate about both film and music, however, poses some interesting problems when viewing a film ABOUT music.
So let’s talk about Whiplash. First, what a great film. Extremely well-acted, especially with the scene-chewing turn from J.K. Simmons, who usually takes a backseat, character-actor position in productions. As a psychological exploration cum thriller, the film is very well-written and thought-provoking. It looks great–the lighting, the sets/locations, the shot framing, which communicates so much to us about these characters and the internal worlds they inhabit.
The film ostensibly takes as its milieu the world of music conservatories and jazz music competitions. Throughout the film, Simmons plays the role of the abusive, overbearing band instructor. Miles Teller plays the role of the dedicated student, a slave to the idea of being “one of the greats.” Simmons tells Teller the story of Charlie Parker and Jo Jones, wherein Jones throws a cymbal at Parker’s head when he doesn’t like a solo the up-and-comer is playing. For this film, the story is supposed to mean that if it weren’t for the violent abuse that Jones metes out to Parker, Parker would never have become the jazz genius we all know.
But you know what? That’s all wrong.
Jones wasn’t throwing the cymbal to hurt Parker. He actually threw it down on the stage–not, as the film says, at Parker’s head–and it was meant as more of a gong-show statement of Jones’s displeasure at Parker’s playing. It’s not that Parker sucked, either. It’s that Parker was playing in a new way that Jones just couldn’t accept. Did Parker practice more after this episode? Yes. Did that practice turn him from a bad player into a genius? Absolutely not. Genius is not a matter of practice. It’s a matter of creativity and originality.
That being said, even the idea of “genius” is problematic at best. And the persevering celebration of the “tortured genius” is absolutely toxic. The idea of mental illness as a positive creative force is actually pretty harmful, and most artists who suffer from mental illness will tell you that they find this trope to be a myth. Pushing Teller’s character to extreme mental duress in order to achieve his greatest performance is, frankly, bullshit. I mean, c’mon. A little adversity is nice and builds character, but Teller’s student is frankly doomed to unhappiness. And also unlikely to be considered “one of the greats.”
Finally, I’ll admit I don’t know the world of music conservatories. But I do know jazz. And if this is how jazz bands are run in those schools, then they don’t understand jazz at all. Teller’s character is pushed to play a double-time swing beat faster. And faster. And faster. Until his hands bleed. This is not jazz. As if an incredibly fast drummer is a great drummer! And if your hands are bleeding, I think you may be holding your sticks incorrectly.
Want to understand jazz better and see a media representation of the music that gets at the true soul of jazz? Watch the excellent HBO series Treme.
Treme, taking its name from the New Orleans neighborhood, treats jazz with great respect while also understanding its vibrancy and wonderful insouciance. It delves into the lives of players–many of whom hold down day jobs or who are grinding out a living as a musician on the fringes of mainstream society–with an unflinching but reverent lens. This life is hard, it says, but the music is transcendent and the choice to play it is driven by the moments of ecstasy and community it brings.
In one episode, Steve Zahn’s character is talking to legendary New Orleans musician Kermit Ruffins. He says to Ruffins, “You’re going to stand there and tell me that all you want to do is get high, play some trumpet, and barbecue in New Orleans your whole damn life?”
And you know what Ruffins says? “That’ll work.”