There have been many standouts at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, but no movie was talked about more than Whiplash, a drama about a jazz drummer in a music conservatory who butts heads with his tyrannical teacher.
Back in 1992, a couple of UT Austin grads by the names of Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson borrowed money from family and friends to create a 13-minute short film. The movie, shot entirely in black-and-white, centered on a trio of Texan palookas who fancy themselves an elite heist squad. Bottle Rocket premiered at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, where it caught the eye of filmmaker James L. Brooks, who helped develop it into a feature.
Ten years after that, in 2004, the New York-based filmmaking team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck debuted their 19-minute short, Gowanus, Brooklyn, at Sundance. The film, about a crack-addicted middle school teacher in inner city Brooklyn, won the fest’s Short Filmmaking Award, and was expanded into the critically acclaimed 2006 feature Half Nelson, starring Ryan Gosling.
The most buzzworthy feature at this year’s Sundance, Whiplash, was also adapted from a short. In 2012, filmmaker Damien Chazelle’s screenplay for Whiplash made the 2012 Black List, an annual selection of the best unproduced movie scripts. Since he couldn’t raise the money to adapt it into a feature, Chazelle decided to helm a short in order to attract investors. His 18-minute film centered on Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a tyrannical teacher at the country’s most elite music conservatory who clashes with a gifted young jazz drummer. The film was shot in three days on a budget of $23,000, and went on to win the Short Film Jury Award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. Bold Films, the production company that financed Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, stepped in to fund a feature-length version at a budget of $3.3 million.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Every artist was first an amateur.” Such is the case with Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a 19-year-old jazz drummer and first-year student at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Manhattan, the top music school in the country. Andrew idolizes Buddy Rich and spends every waking moment either drumming, or thinking about drumming. His only friend is his father, played by Paul Reiser.
Terence Fletcher (Simmons) happens upon Andrew as he’s practicing alone late one night. Dressed in all black, he’s the imposing conductor of Shaffer’s jazz band, a top-ranked group that competes nationally. Fletcher sees something in the dedicated teen, and recruits him to his squad. These early rehearsal scenes see Simmons go for the jugular, verbally undressing his students with rapacious license. He’s like a cross between R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket and Alec Baldwin’s a-hole salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross.
And Andrew, as the youngest boy to ever join the jazz band, soon becomes Fletcher’s whipping boy. Blow a note? A chair goes flying towards his head. Fudge the tempo? He’s slapped repeatedly across the face and blamed for his mother abandoning the family when he was just a baby (which was told to Fletcher in confidence). He constantly demotes Andrew to page-turner, and then promotes him back to the band. During one intense episode, Fletcher makes the boy play so hard his hands bleed, covering his drum sticks and set with blood. But Andrew, at first, takes the abuse. He has one mission in life: to be “one of the greats,” and his biggest fear is becoming like his father, a failed writer turned high school English teacher. He even dumps his sweet, pretty girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) because she’s too much of a “distraction.”
Much of the action in Whiplash requires serious suspension of disbelief. This is, after all, jazz band, but many of the scenes are given the dramatic and physical heft of a boxing match—bloody hands dip slowly into buckets of ice water, bandages fly into the air, sweat drips from every pore. The melodramatic proceedings—along with a few glaring plot holes—would seem completely ridiculous if not for the extraordinary performances of Simmons and Teller. Here, the two engage in a war of attrition.
As the fiery despot, the fine character actor Simmons has never been given a role this juicy, and knocks it out of the park. Forget his sentimental father in Juno. This is Simmons in Oz mode, and it’s a wildly entertaining sight to behold. He’ll make you feel every ounce of his student’s torment, forcing you to recall memories of past disciplinarians-gone-wild. And Teller, who won a Special Jury Prize at Sundance for last year’s The Spectacular Now, matches him step for step. In his previous roles, the 26-year-old actor was like Vince Vaughn-lite—a charismatic, eminently likeable motor mouth. As the tortured Andrew, he delivers a far more nuanced, subdued performance, brimming with animus. And I’m still in shock that Teller performed all the drumming in the film himself, including the jazz standards “Whiplash” and “Caravan,” as well as some impressive Buddy Rich-lite drum solos.
There’s also an interesting question posed in Whiplash that has to do with the path to artistic achievement. Are we all, as the Machiavellian marauder Fletcher believes, amateurs who must be pushed beyond our limits in order to achieve greatness? “There are no two words more harmful in the English language than, ‘Good job,’” he says. Or do these methods discourage the Charlie Parkers of the world from ever reaching their potential? In the case of Chazelle’s film, it’s best to throw logic out the door and give in to the riveting performances and compelling underdog story.
Whiplash’s journey to Sundance is a crazy story unto itself. The film was shot over 19 days, wrapping on Oct. 11 of last year. Chazelle and Tom Cross quickly edited the movie—the yellow-hued film looks stunning, and the plethora of shots and angles are beautifully composed—and submitted it to Sundance on Nov. 8, thanks to an extended deadline (and, presumably, executive producer Jason Reitman). It was accepted two weeks later. Now, the little short that could is one of the favorites to win the fest’s Grand Jury Prize. How’s that for an encore?