Oscar Special: From Shortsfest to Sundance with ‘Whiplash’
When Damien Chazelle’s short film “Whiplash” screened in April 2013 at Aspen Film’s Shortsfest, it brought along considerable buzz for a 17-minute movie set in a band practice room. It had a recognizable star in J.K. Simmons, a renowned executive producer in Jason Reitman — and word was that Chazelle was already working on a feature-film version.
The short about an abusive teacher ripping into the new drummer in his ensemble won Shortsfest’s BAFTA award. In January, the feature-length version — including a new version of that scene and with Miles Teller in the lead as the abused drummer — was a big winner at the Sundance Film Festival, taking home both the audience and grand jury prizes and quickly becoming one of the most talked-about films on the festival circuit. In October, at Aspen Filmfest, a local audience found out what all the hype was about when “Whiplash” played at a surprise screening.
Among the most acclaimed films of the year, “Whiplash” is now nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Simmons and Best Adapted Screenplay for Chazelle (it’s in the adapted category because Chazelle based it on his original short screenplay).
The film turns the tired narrative of inspirational teachers on its head. It plays more like a horror film or psychological thriller than anything else, inexplicably keeping you on the edge of your seat for the entirety of a story about a music school. It actually hits many of the same notes as the first half of “Full Metal Jacket,” in which a drill sergeant played by R. Lee Ermey tortured his grunts in boot camp to prepare them for Vietnam — a comparison Chazelle himself made at Shortsfest.
”The tyrannical leader, drilling his followers, sticking young, mostly male, hyper-competitive but also super-insecure people in a room together and watching the sparks fly,” he said before screening the short in Aspen. “You see that in ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ ‘Reservoir Dogs,’ ‘Mean Streets’ — just letting them go at each other. It’s like watching dogs go at a piece of meat. I like that dynamic, that vernacular.”
Simmons plays the bald-headed, black T-shirt-wearing bully of a teacher, Terence Fletcher, leading an elite jazz ensemble at a New York City conservatory and using terror as his lesson plan. Teller plays the ambitious 19-year-old drummer, Andrew Neyman, who is subject to Fletcher’s manipulation and mistreatment.
“I want to be great. … I want to be one of the greats,” Neyman says at one point.
As the film progresses, you see how hard he’s willing to work — and how much abuse he’s willing to take — to get there.
As the foul-mouthed megalomaniacal teacher, Simmons chews the scenery as he rarely has before. The ubiquitous character actor — recognizable from roles as varied as the neo-Nazi on the HBO prison drama “Oz” to the dad in “Juno” to the yellow peanut M&M in the candy commercials — is a terrifying yet charismatic force in “Whiplash.” He plays the brutal role in a nuanced way that makes you understand both why Neyman wants to impress him and why he fears him so dreadfully. Simmons has won nearly all of the supporting actor prizes this awards season, including the Golden Globe, and would be a well-deserving winner at the Oscars, where he’s up against Robert Duvall (“The Judge”), Ethan Hawke (“Boyhood”), Edward Norton (“Birdman”) and Mark Ruffalo (“Foxcatcher”).
He barks, “Not my tempo!” and leaves a room full of young men (his musicians are all men) quivering. Simmons also scores laughs with some of the most creative four-letter word combinations you’ll hear outside of a Tarantino movie.
He motivates Neyman by telling him the story of Charlie Parker finding his greatness only after drummer Joe Jones threw a cymbal at his head. He punctuates this later by actually flinging a chair at Neyman.
“Whiplash” raises complex questions about how far is too far for a teacher (or a coach or a boss) who wants his charges to perform beyond what’s expected of them in their craft and reach full potential. And about where the line is between ambition and unhealthy obsession and how far you can push Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 Hours Rule.” How much is too much to sacrifice for art?
Neyman practices until his hands bleed. He sleeps beside his drum kit. He ruins relationships. The maniacal focus is born both out of fear of Fletcher and from his innate drive to greatness. Neyman’s father, played by Paul Reiser, is a voice of reason on one of Neyman’s shoulders, while Fletcher sits on the other pushing him further. In today’s everybody-gets-a-trophy culture, Fletcher argues, great jazz and greatness itself are being lost.
As he puts it, “No words in the English language are more dangerous than ‘good job.’”
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