Birdman, Whiplash and the percussion of passion

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” –Thomas Merton

“My passions have killed me, and my passions have made me live.” –Jean-Jacques Rousseau

It may be a coincidence that two of the year’s best films feature heavily percussive scores, but it’s an intriguing one. Both Birdman and Whiplash follow the lives of artists who, for good or ill, find their entire identities inextricably linked to their passions for their professions. The increasingly quickening drum beats reflect the characters’ relentless pursuit of perfection in their craft, and the sudden cymbal crash of disappointment when they can’t reach their own impossible, self-imposed goals.

The similarities between Birdman and Whiplash don’t end there. While very different films, they both have something vital to say about what Rousseau and Merton wrote. Great art—the kind that inspires true passion and the desire for perfection—can destroy us, but it can also teach us what it truly means to live. Art is an inherently risky endeavor, and if it does not carry the simultaneous potential for birth and death, creation and destruction, then it is not true art.

Birdman features a relentless, stylized percussive score by Antonio Sanchez. It gives the film a nervous energy that perfectly matches Emmanuel Lubezki’s innovative cinematography, in which the entire film (through some creative editing) is filmed as though it were all one shot. The drum fills click alongside the constantly moving camera, which swirls, dips and pans around its eccentric cast of characters, afraid to miss one breathless moment of the drama that unfolds before us.

What initially seems like an artsy-fartsy gimmick actually reveals itself as a powerful artistic reflection of the minds of its characters. The primary player is Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), who, as an actor attempting a late-career grab at artistic legitimacy, is staging a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. As both director and star, he hopes to prove to the public that he is a “serious” artist. But, as various complications threaten to derail the production before it even opens, the spirit of The Birdman mocks Riggan’s artistic legitimacy and his sanity. Like Keaton himself (who played Batman in Tim Burton’s original films), Riggan has difficult living up to (or living down) his role as a famous superhero. As his identity is torn between artistically fulfilling work and commercial success, the movie begins to blur the line between reality and fantasy.

Thankfully, Birdman is about far more than Riggan. Taking place entirely in and around a New York theater, the camera captures plenty of other fascinating subjects in this oddball theater community. There’s Riggan’s exasperated agent (Zack Galifianakis, funny but more subtle than normal), his demanding co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts), his other co-star and lover, Laura (Andrea Riseborough) and his daughter Sam (a brilliant Emma Stone), fresh out of drug rehab and helping out as a production assistant. This tight-knit group is rocked by the arrival of big-shot actor Mike Shiner, who is brought in last-minute to play a lead character and begins to bring out the best and worst in his fellow actors.

Birdman looks at the value of true, lasting art, and how the pursuit of it affects both individuals and communities of artists.

Birdman looks at the value of true, lasting art, and how the pursuit of it affects both individuals and communities of artists.

In Birdman’s community of artists, no character feels “supporting” or “minor.”  Because the nonstop camera frequently leaves characters in the middle of conversations to go spy on others, we get a fascinating milieu of emotions and perspectives as all the characters get to speak their mind and share their perspectives. Writer/director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu seems very much occupied with artistic identity, and the way that a community can be wrapped up, body and soul, in a common artistic goal. Of course, opinions vary wildly over how that goal should be met.

The film also reminds me of Billy Joel’s classic album The Stranger, and the way we all wear masks of some sort to hide our true selves. In particular, Mike only feels truly “alive” when he is on stage (in a hilarious segment, he gets a little too into an on-stage bedroom scene, after commenting that he hadn’t been able to “get it up” in years). In varying ways, these actors have become so reliant on their artistic identities that they have difficult functioning in real, human relationships. Riggan’s obsession with his own ego and artistic legacy pushed away Sam, who turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with an absent father. We get the feeling that these characters have possibly lived entire lives of artifice, but, during two thrilling hours, everything is put on the table.

A true sign of a great film is when every scene feels important, and Birdman passes this test with flying colors. Every conversation, every throwaway line, contributes something; if not to the plot, then to the internal lives of the characters. I suppose not much happens plot-wise, but we still get the distinct feeling that, for these characters, nothing will ever be the same. Birdman is a thrilling testament to the power that art can have in both bringing people together and dividing them, in inspiring the kind of passion that thrills and the kind of passion that kills. It’s all wrapped up in one of the most exciting packages all of modern film has to offer.

Whiplash is about jazz musicians the same way Birdman is about the theater, which is to say that the movie’s commentary on artistic identity goes much farther than its subject matter.

But, as a jazz musician myself, I was immediately drawn to this intimate tale of a young, aspiring jazz drummer (Miles Teller) and the relationship with his intimidating and impossibly demanding mentor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). While Birdman is very much interested in the identity of artistic communities, Whiplash feels much more intimate and less sprawling, focusing primarily on the way that the relentless pursuit of artistic greatness affects the life of one young, ambitious 19 year old.

Andrew Neiman, a new student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory of Music, desires to be an all-time great jazz drummer. He spends his days practicing his licks and his nights listening to Buddy Rich records. His goal is to catch the eye of Fletcher and become the go-to drummer for his world-renown jazz ensemble. Soon, Fletcher sees potential in Niemen, and pushes his both psychologically and creatively to be the best he can be. Fletcher’s methods are unorthodox; he screams at his trombone players for not knowing if they’re sharp or flat, and throws chairs at his drummers for not keeping on “his time.” As Fletcher’s ruthless tactics push Niemen to a breaking point, he begins to literally bleed for his art.

In its examination of the pursuit of perfection inherent in many young, passionate musicians, Whiplash is one of the great films about modern musicians; it deserves mention alongside the likes of Once and Almost Famous. As Niemen grows in his craft, he pushes everything else aside, including his promising relationship with his girlfriend and his connection to his father. We see that music, particularly jazz, is an all-consuming beast, commanding the entirety of a musician’s focus to the detriment of everything else.

Whiplash examines the all-consuming passion music can inspire in us, and the disturbing lengths artists can go to to achieve greatness.

Whiplash examines the all-consuming passion music can inspire in us, and the disturbing lengths artists can go to to achieve greatness.

The shadow that hangs over the entire film is Fletcher’s story about the” greatest musician of the 20th century,” Charlie Parker. Parker may have never become “Bird” if a drummer hadn’t thrown a cymbal at his head and told him he sucked. If the drummer had told Parker “the two most dangerous words in the English language: Good job,” Bird may never have been. Fletcher believes that all great art is born of strife, struggle and hardship, but he seems to discount the fact that music, and jazz in particular, can elicit tremendous, indescribable joy. The question for us is whether we agree with him, and does Niemen? We only have one life to live, and the two choices, according to Fletcher, seem to be either miserable and memorable (Parker, a heavy drinker and drug user for most of his career, died at 34) or content and forgotten. The creation of great art, in other words, ruins lives, but its legacy saves many more.

I was ready to passionately disagree with Fletcher’s conclusion, until the film’s haunting final scene, where J.K. Simmons’ brilliant “I told you so” smirk takes on an entirely new and troubling dimension. Why are so many legendary artists also remembered for how miserable they were? Although the “mundane” things in life (family, faith and community) are often those that bring us the greatest joy, they’re often the first things many artists forgo in pursuit of their passion. Why is the choice between life and legacy such a dichotomy for so many?

These questions are beyond what any one film can answer, but rarely have they been raised in such a memorable and thought-provoking way. Birdman and Whiplash seem to understand the mind and soul of an artist better than almost any movie I’ve ever seen. Art, whether it lifts us up or destroys us, is important, and both films take both their artistic implications and their own brilliant filmic artistry very seriously.

There’s one more important thing that great art gives us: a thrill, an exhilarating rush like no other when we realize we are witness true greatness. In great film, like in great theater or great music, we can hear the distinct drive of our hearts beating to the rhythm of awe.

As a bonus, here’s Antonio Sanchez’s incredible percussion work for Birdman.