Miles Teller’s new film, Whiplash, focuses on a jazz drummer at a prestigious New York music conservatory hounded by a demanding bandleader.
While the human drama can be convincingly faked – that’s a little thing called “acting” – it’s considerably harder to fake musical chops, particularly on the drum set, where the wide range of motion necessary to play the instrument is difficult to fake. (Tara Reid, who played drummer Mel in Josie and the Pussycats, took drum lessons for two months, and the movie still studiously avoided prolonged shots of her “playing.”)
Tia Carrere’s bass “playing” in Wayne’s World is also a Hall of Shame contender: Generally speaking, one’s hand tends to move on the neck of a guitar or bass while playing the instrument, a subtlety that escaped Carrere. (Dana Carvey, on the other hand, actually played his drum solo in the film.)
Sean Penn did a better job fake-playing in his role as a jazz guitarist in Sweet and Lowdown, and Oscar Isaac grew up playing guitar, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for him to play the folk songs of Inside Llewyn Davis.
On that note, with so much scrutiny on the playing itself in Whiplash, writer-director Damien Chazelle (who not coincidentally happens to be a drummer) hired Nate Lang, an actor and member of the New York band the Howlin’ Souls, to play Teller’s rival, Carl, and put Teller through a jazz drumming boot camp of sorts.
“Everything has to look correct, especially with jazz drumming, which is a very technical, graceful kind of drumming,” Lang, a veteran of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, told The New York Post.
Though Teller taught himself to play the drums at 15, he played in rock bands, so Lang had some corrective work to do: He worked with Teller for two months, playing for three or four hours a day in an L.A. rehearsal space. Among other things, they changed the way Teller held the drumsticks: Jazz drummers tend to play with what’s called a “traditional” grip – holding one stick at an angle as a snare drummer in a marching band would – while rock drummers largely use a “matched” grip, where both hands hold the sticks the same way. (Levon Helm from The Band was one notable exception – watch him play and sing! – with a traditional grip in this clip from The Last Waltz.) Then there were the film’s drum solos to work on: Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” and Hank Levy’s “Whiplash.”
Check out Lang, Teller and J.K. Simmons (in a role already getting Oscar buzz) in Whiplash, in theaters now.