Birdman, Whiplash and the sound of drums

Birdman and Whiplash are both enhanced by their percussion-laden scores. We dig into the music of both of them...

This article contains spoilers for Birdman and Whiplash (including Whiplash’s ending)

What makes a great drummer?

That’s the question asked by Whiplash, which was up for Best Picture at the Oscars (although ultimately, as you more than likely know, didn’t prevail). Damien Chazelle’s thriller – easily the most exciting (and horrifying) account of music practice in cinema history – goes head to head with Birdman, another percussion-heavy flick. While the two share an instrument, though, their answers to that question couldn’t be more different.

For Whiplash, it mostly seems to boil down to one thing: how quickly can you drum? The opening track of the album makes that clear, as we hear a snare drum banged repeatedly by Andrew (Miles Teller), faster and faster. “Can someone clean the blood off my drum kit?” we hear J.K. Simmons’ teacher, Fletcher, demand a few seconds later.

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It’s almost exactly the opposite for Birdman, as the opening track gives us an uncut recording of Antonio Sanchez tuning up his drums in the studio: a random sequence of bangs and bongs that sets the tone for a free-flowing shuffle of ideas.

As you’d expect for a movie about the strive for artistic perfection, Whiplash‘s soundtrack is a precisely tuned machine. The album groups things into clear groups: original songs, original score and familiar standards. Within the film itself, things unfold in a very different (and equally deliberate) order.

Justin Hurwitz’s score sets the mood with a chirpy overture, full of dancing saxophones and parping trumpets. It blends seamlessly with the vibe of the standards that are featured, from Stan Getz’s “Intoit” to Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.” In fact, in one date scene, the background accompaniment is named as “When I Wake,” a 1930s track played in a cafe that isn’t from the 1930s at all: it was composed by Justin Hurwitz specifically for the movie. That ability to ape the chord progressions and instrumentation of the genre goes hand in hand with the rest of it: Whiplash has an almost microscopic awareness of what makes jazz tick.

But it’s not all blaring big band numbers. Hurwitz mellows things out with a distinctly downbeat number, a sentimental, cool song that wouldn’t be out of place in The Fast Show and played (in a brilliant masterstroke) by Fletcher on the piano. The melody, which steps laconically down the keyboard, becomes a secondary theme for the film, appearing in tender scenes between Andrew and his father (“Hug from Dad”) and when he’s let go (“Dismissed”); the intimidation of his mentor looming over all the emotional moments in the film.

A pedal note rhythm plays on the piano too, underscoring those quieter passages, while Hurwitz introduces an increasingly electronic tone; a synthesised slice of discord that sees the precision and tuneful music of earlier slide out of control into disorder and pain.

And what of the titular track? That’s where Whiplash gets clever: Hank Levy’s monster of a piece is not just toe-tappingly catchy, but also tricky to learn. Its 7/4 time signature forces a drummer to count in twos and threes right from the start; enough to disorient any new band member. What makes it so effective, though, is that we never actually hear the piece in full during the movie: it’s in its full, fun glory on the album, but in the cinema, it becomes an unattainable, unknowable challenge. And yet it’s heard everywhere, as its rhythms seep into other tracks, from “Practicing” to “Drum & Drone.”

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The movie climaxes with a tour de force from the tortured student, who hijacks the stage for a nine-minute rendition of “Caravan.” Whether Teller holds his sticks correctly becomes irrelevant, as the unknown drummer on the soundtrack aims for as much spectacle as possible. It’s here that the single-stroke roll from the beginning comes back into play; a rim shot to the gut that leaves you catching your breath.

Here is also where Whiplash drums up the ambiguity at the core of the film: whether Fletcher’s bullying is justified in motivating his students. That notion of having to drum faster and faster (double-time swing is rife in “Caravan”) drowns out the other part of jazz: fun.

Birdman, on the other hand, is full of it.

“You’re a jazz drummer, I want you to improvise,” Alejandro González Iñárritu told Antonio Sanchez when they began work on the film. After throwing out any pre-written music, Sanchez then sat in a room with the director, who read through the script and indicated when actions would occur – and, more importantly, when.

“Every time I saw him do that, I’d change the vibe and intensity of what I was playing,” Sanchez says in an excellent interview with Hitfix.

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They recorded 60 or 70 takes of those improvised segments, which Iñárritu then used for timing during production. That’s the secret to Birdman‘s brilliance: the drums aren’t just added on afterwards, but an integral part of the film’s skeleton.

The rhythms first begin in Reagan’s dressing room, as Michael Keaton’s actor starts talking to himself (and his super hero alter-ego). As he leaves and begins to walk around the theatre, shuffles, toms and cymbals start to enter the mix, getting more and more animated. Are they something only heard in his head?

That artificiality is heightened by the rest of the soundtrack: Tchaikovsky’s 4th and Mahler’s 9th both feature, but only inside the world of the play, as the actors perform it both to a full and empty theatre. With Rachmaninov accompanying Birdman’s flights over the city, the music works in the same way as the camera: what begins as something centred on Reagan’s unstable mind bleeds out into the wider world. Soon, scenes with other characters are scored by the drums too. In the sanity stakes, everything is suddenly up for grabs.

Stacking cymbals, muffling the skins and detuning the kit, Sanchez goes to town over the course of the movie, keeping things varied but also unpredictable. Iñárritu even throws in shots of our drummer in the background of key scenes – although this is actually a friend of Antonio, Nate Smith.

It feels like the polar opposite to Whiplash. For Birdman, jazz is about expression. But just as Iñárritu is concerned with art in general, Damien Chazelle’s movie is more about abuse and power than jazz: it uses music as its medium. And that’s why the two soundtracks are such perfect companions; in their own way, both use the drums as an instrument for exploring creativity and success. What makes a great drum soundtrack? Jazz needs soul, and both films have it. But it’s also about timing. Birdman and Whiplash never miss a beat.

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