Friday, January 17, 2014

Sundance ’14: Whiplash (the feature)

The 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.

If 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.

Forget 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 his fashion.

While 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.

To 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.