‘When someone is playing the drums, they aren’t actually moving around a space; they’re just moving their arms and limbs. They’re stuck behind the drum set. So to film someone playing the drums and make it feel as kinetic as a car chase or a shootout or a battle scene was the challenge.’ – Damien Chazelle
Did you know that the most common drum beat is actually used in a number of classic hit songs?
Believe it or not, Billie Jean, Eye of the Tiger, Stayin’ Alive, September and even Baby One More Time and Rolling in the Deep, all actually have the same kind of drum beats.
If you are familiar with popular music then you have probably already heard the hit songs mentioned above and can bring those memorable drumbeats that flow throughout the songs to mind without batting an eyelid.
But can you also think of any films where drumming plays a significant role?
From action films, thrillers, comedy dramas to docu-dramas and foreign films – drums are actually a crucial part of almost any film soundtrack. Music is an integral part of cinema and most films have trailers that are punctuated by a piece of music with drumming. Tarantino, Hitchcock, Almodovar – all the films are so great because of their soundtracks which are so fitting and recognisable.
But films which place musical instruments at the forefront of the action, focussing on the actual instruments themselves are a lot less common.
This is especially true of the drums, which are such an important part of film soundtracks, but usually remain in their discrete role as guardians of rhythm rather than the cinematic focus of the film.
Whether you realise it or not – percussion instruments are central to the film! (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Director: Alejandro González Iñárritu
Release Date: 2014
Main Actors: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts
How to make a movie that will be a hit at the Oscars? Bring together a hi-hat cymbal, a pianist, a musician who is a whizz with the drumset and can do amazing improvisation and Bob’s your uncle!
Birdman was nominated for and eventually won the Oscar for Best Picture and it is fair to say that this is some way thanks to the rhythm section of its soundtrack and the magic of drumming. It is a film defined by its original soundtrack.
Even though the film may not have anything to do with drumming in terms of plot, it is the musical instruments that help insight intrigue and all the plot to develop.
The desperate turmoil of Michael Keaton is moved forward by the drumsticks of Antonio Sanchez, who is in sole control of the soundtrack.
Still living the role that made him so famous, the main character of the film wants to create a new Broadway adaptation.
The drum kit, although invisible, is clearly central to the film, which would not have been such a success without the jingle of the cymbals, the rhythmic beats of the bass drum and the climactic musical surges of the snare drum.
Director: Penelope Spheeris
Release Date: 1992
Many Actors: Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Rob Lowe
Stash away your brain for Wayne’s World, which is a film characterized by humour of the absurd, somewhat in the same vein as Dumb & Dumber. But did you know this about humour:
‘There is a lot of rubbish written about toilet humour – people saying it is childish and pretending it is beneath them – but there is no doubting the effectiveness of a really good …gag.’ – Adrian Edmondson
Garth et Wayne air their own show in the suburbs of Chicago. A local TV producer stumbles upon their show and hires them.
At the same time, Wayne falls for Cassandra, a bass guitarist of a hard rock band. However, a love triangle soon emerges and he is forced to fight for his love.
The drum kit is used as a tool to express Garth’s feelings, Garth being the shyer one of the duo. He is transported on stage by the magic of cinema and the soundtrack.
Far from being a really great film and a classic American blockbuster, this is a lighthearted movie, purely for entertainment, but it is its drumming soundtrack that has managed to guarantee viewers’ respect even though drum music is not in the foreground of the film.
A piece of rock or jazz music is essential for every film!
Director: Otto Preminger
Release Date: 1955
Main Actors: Frank Sinatra, Kim Novak, Eleanor Parker, Darren McGavin
Based on the book by the same name, The Man with the Golden Arm is most well-known for its signature tune written by Saul Bass and its soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein. This film was pioneering in the way that it made use of jazz music and jazz drumming in cinema.
Frankie Machine, played by Frank Sinatra, returns to Chicago after coming back from rehab. In order to not be haunted by his old demons and put himself on the straight and narrow, he begins to play jazz on the drums.
Unfortunately, his new life is short-lived as soon enough, he arrives at an audition completely drugged up.
The scene of his failed performance is truly legendary; never before has the young drummer’s inner torment and chaos appeared so acute to viewers before. The wrong notes, the arrhythmia combined together with the drummer’s clumsiness lead us into the inner depths and shadows of his mind.
It is the jazz drummer, Shelly Manne who plays Sinatra’s double in the film.
For those of you who are interested, this is the very first Hollywood film to openly address the issue of drugs and the effects they cause.
Spinal Tap is a faux documentary for drumming and rock fanatics that has been made so well it seems almost real! (Source: Flickr)
Director: Rob Reiner
Release Date: 1984
Genre: Musical Comedy / Parody Documentary
Main Actors: Rob Reiner, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest
This is Spinal Tap is a kind of pseudo-rock ‘n’ roll documentary about a fictitious heavy metal band.
The group appear on their (fake) tour of 1982 kitted out in full rock ‘n’ roll attire.
The obsession with technique, cultural pretentiousness, inflated egos, evil temptations, astrology – all the usual clichés are there but the events are somehow still plausible all the same!
Everything is done in seriousness, which ultimately makes the facts seem hardly exaggerated at all. Each scene is so amusing and funny because it seems so real and as if we have already seen something similar 10 times before!
For example, one of the drummers belonging to Spinal Tap describes a mishap he once experienced – during a show once, in the heat of the moment he climbed on his drum kit which duly collapsed beneath him! The anecdote perfectly encapsulates the overkill and the yearning for drama that is so often present in the rock industry (particularly among rock musicians and rock stars), which is often to the detriment of the music quality.
Director: Don Weis
Release Date: 1959
Genre: Drame / Comedy
Main Actors: Sal Mineo, Yvonne Craig, James Darren, Susan Kohner
The great jazz drummer, Gene Krupa, really needs no further introduction! Watching a drum film is akin to plunging into Gene Krupa’s life thanks to this biopic.
This film has it all – a mixture of comedy, romance and drama. This drummer movie tells the tale of the life of Gene Krupa, which is one defined by a desire to both achieve success and have a spliff!
In spite of his undeniable talent, Gene Krupa’s father did not want his son to play the drums. However, as we all know, Gene Krupa continued to play the drums all the same and through doing so, met his future wife after being introduced at a bar.
However, after the death of his father, he decided to follow the path that his father had set out for him and threw himself into the study of theology. However, his passion for music would soon catch up with him.
Gene Krupa truly is part of drumming history!
Caught in the crossfire between his studies at the church and his desire to become a drummer, his counsellor asks him to choose a career path according to his own wishes rather than those of his late father.
Eventually, as his drumming career progress, he gains more and more success but also begins to succumb to the negative effects of fame at the same time. His alcoholism and infidelities lead to the destruction of his marriage.
Yet despite his faults and the tribulations in his life, the film still ends on a positive note, especially as we know that in real life in remarries his wife some years after the events that occur in the movie took place.
Director: Damien Chazelle
Release Date: 2014
Main Actors: J.K Simmons, Miles Teller, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser
If there ever was a film dedicated to drumming, then it was this Whiplash!
As intense as an all encapsulating drum solo, this drummer movie is a true cinematic gem. Intense drumming lessons are the focal point of the film, which hones in on the toxic relationship between a young drummer and his drumming instructor who is both cruel and unyielding.
Hoping to be the new Buddy Rich, the drumming student is forced to endure humiliations, psychological manipulations and even physical violence (having cymbals thrown at him) at the hands of his drum teacher and supposed educator.
Whatever your musical dreams are, whether you aspire to be a rock musician, a modern drummer, jazz drummer or jazz festival performer, a composer, part of a big band or orchestra or simply one of the best drummers or jazz artists there are – seeing this young drummer practising melodic drum solos and his torturous drum lessons will probably be enough to put you off music for life!
A true drummer will probably also wince at some of the errors in this movie (cymbals being heard one a drummer hits the snare drum, bad drumming footage, etc.).
The abusive teacher and psychological violence of this film is at odds with the world of drumming that is usually seen as so relaxed.
Some scenes show the aspiring drummer pushed to the extreme and are quite hard to watch – notably when he is shown bleeding as a result of his excessive training.
In reality, the chance of that actually happening is almost next to none.
Sure, you may get blisters. But only up to a point, after which the skin on your hand would simply adjust and become much rougher and harder.
Is Whiplash a horror movie? For the young drummer whom the movie centres around it certainly is! (Source: Flickr)
Director: George Stevens
Release Date: 1938
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Main Actors: Fred Astaire, Joan Fontaine, George Burns, Gracie Allen
The film is a love story intertwined with the rhythm and beat of dance. (Source: Wikimedia)
Fred Astaire shoots his first ever film without Ginger Rogers, his eternal sidekick, as the duo begin to tire of appearing together in public. Unfortunately, his new partner in this drum film does not quite have the talent of Ginger Rogers or Rita Hayworth and Fred Astair must go the tap dancing sequences alone!
The movie is a romance in which Fred Astaire’s and Joan Fontaine’s characters find themselves falling in love with one another despite the obstacles put in their way by the hotel director and the aunt of Joan Fontaine’s character.
Fred Astaire uses drumsticks, followed by tap shoes, for an amazing choreographic display.
Although it appears on occasion and has an undeniable presence, drumming takes rather a backseat in the film and does not constitute the main part of the performance.
This movie would probably be better described as Fred Astaire’s answer to La La Land!
It is a musical note struck noticeably harder and stronger than others, to emphasise a certain moment.
Sweepers can replace drumsticks at certain times and are made of metallic strands or fine nylon afixed to the end of a plastic handle – a bit like a mini broomstick for drummers! They are used a lot in jazz and to soften the sound of the drum.