‘Whiplash,’ Take Two: A Shortfest winner transforms into one of 2014’s most buzzed-about features
When Damien Chazelle’s short film “Whiplash” screened in April of last year 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 was a big winner at the Sundance Film Festival, taking both the audience and grand jury prizes and quickly becoming one of the most talked-about films on the festival circuit.
An Aspen Film audience found out what all the hype was about on Monday, Sept. 29, when “Whiplash” was an Aspen Filmfest surprise screening.
The film turns the tired narrative of inspirational teachers on its head, and 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 film about a music school. It actually hits many of the same notes as the first half of “Full Metal Jacket,” in which R. Lee Ermey tortured his grunts in boot camp to prepare them for Vietnam – a comparison Chazelle made himself last year 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 told the Aspen Times last year. “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.”
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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. Miles 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 Andrew wants to impress him, and why he fears him so dreadfully.
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 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, 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, and he ruins relationships – all both out of fear of Fletcher and his drive to greatness. Andrew’s father, played by Paul Reiser, is a voice of reason on one of Andrew’s shoulders, while Fletcher sits on the other pushing him yet farther. 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.’”
So let’s say Chazelle has done a great job on “Whiplash.”
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