late lamented IAJE’s annual conference-jazz gathering used to be such a breath
of fresh air, because you could see the enthusiasm young high school kids have
for America’s great original musical art form.
In the case of Andrew Neiman, there is a dark side to that passion—personified
by a ruthlessly manipulative band director.
There will literally be blood on the drum kit in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, an opening night selection of
the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
the nebbish Neiman and the Mephistophelean Terence Fletcher sound familiar, it
is because they first appeared in Chazelle’s proof-of-concept short, which won
the short film jury award at last year’s Sundance and went on to screen at
NYFF. Concept proved. That harrowing trial-by-fire is replayed in the feature
length Whiplash with a new Neiman,
but the irreplaceable J.K. Simmons returns as Fletcher.
Simmons’ character in Oz—Fletcher is
far scarier. He out Buddy Riches Buddy
Rich. Unfortunately, as the director of
a Juliard-like music college’s concert jazz big band, he holds tremendous power
to help or hinder aspiring musicians.
Needless to say, when Neiman gets his first supposed shot playing with
Fletcher’s Studio Band, it is a disaster.
Of course, the kid is set-up to fail when he is thrown head first into
Hank Levy’s “Whiplash,” a chart that looks like differential equations
translated into Sanskrit. However,
Neiman craves Fletcher’s approval so badly, he will work his fingers to the
bone practicing the twisty flag-waver.
Whiplash the short was a
nifty piece of jazz-informed filmmaking, but it exceeds all expectations as a
feature. Once again, Simmons is the
engine making it all run. His Fletcher
is a natural cinematic successor to R. Lee Ermy’s drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket and Jack Nicholson’s
Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men—for real. Yet, there is a reason for his
abusive-borderline sociopathic behavior.
Even more than in the predecessor short, Chazelle’s full length script
and Simmons’ performance make it clear Fletcher is always true to the music in
some might be troubled by Fletcher’s homophobic taunts (actually, you’re sort
of supposed to be), this is the one area jazz has not historically been a trailblazer
for tolerance. Indeed, many have
compared big band outfits to military units and viewers can understand how so
from many scenes in Whiplash.
his credit, Miles Teller also really digs in as Neiman. There is nothing cute or quirky about his
work. In fact, it is downright painful
watching him cower and cringe. He also
looks convincing with the sticks. Chazelle,
the former jazz drummer, probably gave him a few pointers. After all, Whiplash is based on his own experiences
with a martinet bandleader (loosely so, we can only hope).
Frankly, Chazelle has done the near impossible,
getting Sony to care about jazz. It is
sort of a coming of age story, but it does not exactly wrap things up in a neat
little bow. Regardless, it is a major statement from Chazelle. He really opens it up as a director, staging
an unusually dynamic and dramatic climatic concert. By the same token, his script rings with
truth and attitude, particularly for those who are in anyway familiar with jazz
education. The result is a smart,
stylish film that swings like mad.
Highly recommended, Whiplash screens
again today (1/17), Wednesday (1/22), and Thursday (1/23) in Park City and
Saturday (1/18) in Salt Lake as part of the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
Labels: Damien Chazelle, J.K. Simmons, Sundance '14