Among this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture were two films with drum scores: Whiplash, in which a highly regarded but abusive conductor molds an aspiring young jazz musician into the genius he was meant to be, and Birdman, in which an aging film actor who was never a genius at all stars in a play and possibly flies. In spite of their innovative soundtracks, neither film received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. In the case of Whiplash this was unsurprising; the film’s key scenes use jazz standards, not new music. However, the exclusion of Birdman was controversial. The executive committee of the Academy’s music branch determined that Antonio Sanchez’s drum score was “diluted” by the classical music also featured within the film and thus ineligible for nomination. I want to consider what that ruling, which was unsuccessfully appealed by the film’s director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, says about the meaning of rhythm, music, and masculinity in a year of “great man” pictures.
“Great man” films are comforting because they confirm the inevitability of achievement. Whether they are based on historical figures or merely suggest them, we watch these movies with an expectation that the hero will overcome obstacles through personal conviction and dedication to his craft. Director Damien Chazelle delivers on this promise with Whiplash. Andrew, the film’s young drummer, aspires to play charts to perfection. His practice sessions, to which Chazelle devotes rather fetishistic attention, are rife with photogenic blood and sweat, not unlike training sequences in sports films. Indeed, Fletcher, the conductor of the school’s most prestigious jazz band, has more in common with the cinematic stereotype of a sports coach than a professor. If his homophobic insults and physical abuse seem out of place in a conservatory, it’s because Whiplash isn’t about making music, but making men.
In Whiplash, rhythm is precise, directional, owned. “Not my tempo,” Fletcher repeats again and again, as he asks Andrew to follow his lead, to assimilate. Drumming in Whiplash is an elaborate ritual of induction into an elite club of men, for the fictional conservatory’s unmentioned exclusion of female students can be no accident. Andrew will be “great” because he plays well-known jazz tunes accurately, alone, in a practice room, until he bleeds. Rhythm provides the structure for the entrance into manhood and the mechanism for disciplining masculine behavior.
Birdman, on the other hand, uses rhythm as an expression of being, an extension of the character’s perspective into the shared experience of the viewer. Drum solos follow the film-turned-stage actor, Riggan, as he moves about the theater or weaves his way through the city. Our perception of the drumming mirrors how Riggan understands the fantastic elements of his life. He hears the voice of Birdman, the superhero he once played on film, and he seems to possess superhuman abilities himself, yet both are impossible within the boundaries of the world inhabited by the characters. Several of Sanchez’s drum solos consist of layered tracks, making them similarly impossible, for no live performer could replicate the sound. In spite of its inexecutability, at times the music becomes diegetic—a drummer will appear in the theater’s kitchen or on a city street—although we are never certain whether to accept him as an objective figure revealed by the film’s narrator or an illusory character generated by Riggan’s mind. Unreal and real at once, the drumming, like the special effects, is only possible because of the cinema.
As in this clip, the drums provide a structure for Birdman’s conspicuously long tracking shots (the film tricks us into imagining it is a single take). Sanchez’s cues make up approximately 30 minutes of the score, giving life to sequences that might otherwise drag, yet they are not directional; Sanchez’s improvisations neither comment on Riggan’s intentions nor insist that he adopt a more worthy set of narrative goals. Because of the affinity between Riggan and the drums, rhythm ties us to the character. Iñárritu asks us to experience the uncertainty of Riggan’s venture along with him; success is by no means guaranteed.
The radically different meaning of rhythm in Whiplash and Birdman reflect two distinct worldviews, not only in their representation of men, but also in their perception of time. In Whiplash, time is external and objective, and yet, as Henri Bergson writes, this understanding of duration is “a fiction whose origin is easy to discover”. This is time in service to the “great man” narrative, the “fiction” of masculine expectations, the Romantic tale of the male artist at work. Andrew will be great, Whiplash tells us, because he has found the “right” rhythm, a rhythm he can share with no one, appreciated only by the sadistic father figure who reigns over the film’s presentation of patriarchy. Although he performs no music himself, Riggan’s rhythm is subjective; drumming in Birdman makes audible the duration of his reality. Bergson says, “to perceive consists in condensing enormous periods of an infinitely diluted existence into a few more differentiated moments of an intenser life.” Unlike Fletcher and Andrew, Riggan perceives the preposterous image of the masculine ideal—not even he really wants to be Birdman. The intensity of Iñárritu’s single take paired with the audacity of Sanchez’s drums unravels the fiction of the “great man.” Riggan doesn’t become “great” by shooting himself in the face; rather, he becomes conscious of the incompatibility of the male artist with the culture of celebrity.
So what does the ineligibility of Birdman’s score tell us about the myth of the male artist? It may suggest that the Academy doesn’t see drumming as original music, certainly a position that ought to invite our scrutiny. But it also exposes a problem with the idea that film music should exist in service to the narrative. When that narrative is repeatedly devoted to the imminent triumph of great men, is it any wonder that Sanchez’s improvisations would fall on deaf ears?
Headline Image: Drum. © carloscastilla via iStock.