We Are the Best!

2014 in Music Film: Questioning the “Tortured Artist”

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 12.08.14 in Features
‘All art, our art tells us, is inextricably linked to suffering. But what the films of 2014 increasingly presupposed is: Maybe it isn’t?’

The following piece reveals minor plot points for the films Whiplash, Frank and Birdman. The ending of the film We Are the Best! is described in detail. Reader discretion is advised.

Near the end of Whiplash, fiercely determined student drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), sits across a table from Terence Fletcher, his instructor, mentor and tormentor. Fletcher — played with clenched, calculated violence by J. K. Simmons — has spent the better part of the film bullying, heckling and abusing Neiman, but at this point, the two have reached something of a dénouement. In a rare moment of quiet candor, Fletcher offers a rationale for his aggressive methods. He recounts — not for the first time — the story of how the drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at the head of a young Charlie Parker when Parker, then a novice, couldn’t stay on the beat. His takeaway from this anecdote is chillingly matter-of-fact: If Jones hadn’t resorted to violence, the world wouldn’t have gotten Charlie Parker. The accuracy of this story has lately been called into question, (the cymbal was thrown at Parker’s feet, not his head) but that’s neither here nor there: What matters is that, in the universe of the film, it lays clear Fletcher’s belief that artistic greatness is achieved not through inspiration or tenacity, but through pain and suffering. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful,” Fletcher coolly concludes, “than ‘good job.’”

In the context of the film, Fletcher’s line is terrifying, but the masochistic philosophy that informs Fletcher’s methodology reflects the conventional wisdom about creation. The arc of nearly every biopic since Lady Sings the Blues positions “success” on the other end of a blood-colored rainbow comprised of addiction, abuse, physical hardship or, in the case of Ray Charles, all three. Generally speaking, in films about music, artistic talent is nestled behind the barbed wire of torment, and only those who willingly submit themselves to being scraped, bloodied and bruised are allowed to access it. All art, our art tells us, is inextricably linked to suffering. But what the films of 2014 increasingly presupposed — to paraphrase The Royal Tenenbaums‘ Eli Cash — is: Maybe it isn’t?

In Whiplash, for example, the idea that Fletcher’s results justify his methods is ambiguous at best. That question swings over the film’s harrowing final scene like a chandelier suspended by rubberbands; Fletcher gets the results he wants, but the film also shows the effect of his bullying on Neiman, both physically as well as in the systematic decimation of all of Neiman’s relationships that aren’t directly related to music-making. There are sustained, gruesome close-ups of Neiman’s bleeding hands, and the scene in which he coolly ditches the girl he’d been dating is equally cutting. Suffering, it suggests, begets not art, but suffering. The film also pointedly contrasts Fletcher’s knives-out pedagogy with the softness of Neiman’s father, played with understated grace by Paul Reiser. Reiser’s character is a failed author, a fact Fletcher cruelly deploys in order to break into Neiman’s brain. But the context of Neiman and Fletcher’s late-film conversation about Jo Jones and Charlie Parker subtly suggests that, for all his mercenary theories on greatness and how to create it, Fletcher’s own lot in life is arguably much worse than Neiman’s father’s. And when a former student of Fletcher’s turns up halfway through the film, his presence is not so much a plot point as an open rebuke.

‘It is the delusion that both silently underpins the caricature of the tortured artist and provides its raison d’etre: the idea that emotional and physical suffering in the creation of art are beneficial not because the artist wants to be happy, but because everyone wants to be great.’

That question runs even deeper in Frank, a portrait of a deranged, brilliant musician loosely based on the British performer Frank Sidebottom. Though its tone is decidedly lighter than Whiplash, Frank himself is, in a way, both Neiman and Fletcher at once. He spends the majority of the film wearing a cartoonish, oversized papier-mâché head, which he never takes off, even when he’s in the shower (“I have a certificate,” he forcefully reminds anyone who tries to remove it). He and his band, who go by the hilariously unpronounceable name the Soronprfbs, exist inside a carefully maintained world of their own making.

Their surrealistic snow globe is shattered by the appearance of Jon Burroughs, a frustrated musician with some talent but no success (“Panini with cheese and ham. #livingthedream,” he tweets to his 16 followers early in the movie). Burroughs is drawn in by Frank first because he sees the opportunity to make money as a musician, but later because he begins to see Frank’s illness as a sign of genius. And while he’s not the same sort of blood-spitting Attila as Terence Fletcher, Frank’s own methods are equally unsparing. In a sequence meant to echo the real-life circumstances surrounding the making of Captain Beefheart‘s Trout Mask Replica, Frank imprisons his band in a farmhouse in the Irish countryside in order to force them to work on a record. They practice 16 hours a day, for several consecutive days, before single note is recorded. Like Fletcher, Frank is a taskmaster but his band suffers his abuse because they labor under the belief that his talent is supernatural. And, like Fletcher, Frank’s methods eventually draw blood.

But where Frank peels away from Whiplash is in its explicit detangling of genius and suffering. Burroughs secures the band a slot at South by Southwest — a musical agony of a different kind — imagining it as a kind of triumphant celebration. (An internet cult has grown up around Frank as a result of Burroughs’s Twitter presence, one of the ways the film coolly indicts social media in the perpetuation of myth.) But as the date nears, it becomes obvious that Frank’s manias stem not from some rare enlightenment, but from actual psychological problems. The reason his band is overlooked, the film suggests, is not because their music is too esoteric for a mass audience, but because the effects of that kind of attention on their frontman would be catastrophic. “He was always talented,” Frank’s mother says to Burroughs sadly, when the two finally meet after the film’s shattering finale. “If anything,” she says, “the torment slowed him down.”

There’s a crucial difference, though, between Frank and Neiman and Frank and Fletcher — or, for that matter, Frank and Ian Curtis in Control or all the Bob Dylans of I’m Not There, and that difference is the presence of joy. Unlike Neiman or Fletcher, who pursue greatness because of their belief that greatness has intrinsic value, Frank appears to genuinely enjoy making music. Which quietly gives the lie to another piece of accepted wisdom: the creation of great art must necessarily be joyless. It suggests a kind of unspoken polarity; in the unendurable Birdman, Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thompson doesn’t mount a stage play because he has a deep-seated love of theater — he undertakes it, and all the suffering that accompanies it, because he believes it will make him great (a point helpfully articulated by Emma Stone’s character in one of the film’s many bludgeoning monologues).

‘The girls in We Are the Best! suggest another path to creation, one forged not in agony, but in joy.’

The folly of Thompson’s undertaking is the same kind of thinking that leads Burroughs to book Frank a high-profile gig in Austin, and that provokes Neiman to batter his hands bloody. It is the delusion that both silently underpins the caricature of the tortured artist and provides its raison d’etre: the idea that emotional and physical suffering in the creation of art are beneficial not because the artist — or anyone, really — wants to be happy, but because everyone wants to be great. And that greatness is measured not in terms of personal fulfillment or quality product, but in acclaim, celebration and influence. It’s a notion hopelessly tangled up in the Protestant work ethic which holds that suffering leads to supernatural reward. There is no joy in the journey, not for Neiman or Ian Curtis or countless others. The artist suffers to become immortal, a prize, it’s implied, that is greater than happiness.

Thank god, then, for Bobo, Klara and Hedvig, the protagonists of Lukas Moodysson’s euphoric We Are the Best!, far and away one of the year’s best films. In it, three teenage girls in Sweden form a punk band despite the fact that two of them have no discernible musical talent. That’s a trifling detail: throughout the film, the trio flail around giddily in their bedrooms to Scandinavian pop-punk, give one another questionable haircuts (some of which involve the use of egg whites) and meet up with punk boys from another town on the basis of their shared musical taste. Their lone song is an uproarious protest of their school’s P.E. requirement, which they practice fitfully and without any clear signs of improvement. And while the film lightly suggests music gives them outlet for turmoil in their home lives, that’s never their primary motivation. Like The Punk Singer, last year’s beautiful documentary about Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, the girls in We Are the Best! create not because they are in pain, but because it makes them happy, and because they have something to say (even if their message is as defiantly simple as “Hate the sport!”). Klara, Bobo and Hedvig suggest another path to creation, one forged not in agony, but in joy. When the two older men who run the youth center where the group practices get an earful of their performance, they swoop in to helpfully, earnestly “instruct” the girls on the proper, disciplined way to make music. That the scene provides the film’s biggest laughs is a telling indictment.

Like so many films about struggling young bands, We Are the Best! ends in a talent competition. But when the girls take the stage at the film’s conclusion, they aren’t magically transformed into marksmen musicians, and the song they play isn’t supplied on the soundtrack by some popular Swedish artist. Instead, they play as they have throughout the entire film — badly. As the crowd grows steadily more unruly, the trio only get worse. They are chaotic and ramshackle — no one in the band is paying attention to anyone else, they’re out of tune and off-key, and they’re loudly booed by the very audience for whom they’ve come to perform. When the song finally comes crashing noisily down, Klara simply grabs the microphone and screams the phrase that gives the film its title again and again: “We are the best! We are the best!”

If Terence Fletcher heard them, he would be appalled. But they look like they’re having the time of their lives.