Our annual Sundance Curiosities column takes a look at various movies and filmmakers from the upcoming Park City festival worthy of anticipation. This year, the column is being written by members of the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Fellowship for Film Criticism, who will also review films during the festival.
Walking away from last year’s Sundance Film Festival with the short film Jury Award for best U.S. Fiction, writer-director Damien Chazelle returns this January with a feature-length reprise of his crowd-pleasing short, “Whiplash.” A story about rhythm and blues — or, perhaps more accurately, blues as a byproduct of pursuing a life of rhythm — "Whiplash" centers on an aspiring young drummer who suffers emotional abuse at the hands of his sadistic, drill-sergeant of a band teacher (played to bald-headed perfection by J.K. Simmons).
Unfolding over the course of a single rehearsal, the tightly constructed 18-minute short was adapted from a feature-length script Chazelle already had in the works in the hopes of attracting investors for the bigger picture. The plan proved successful: Bold Films, the company behind “Drive” and “Only God Forgives,” scooped the project up and provided full financial support. Although Simmons will remain in the role of the "Full Metal Jacket"-inspired conductor, the actor who played the young lead has been exchanged for Miles Teller (“The Spectacular Now”). Co-produced by veterans Jason Reitman (“Juno,” "Up in the Air") and Jason Blum ("The Reader," "Paranormal Activity"), "Whiplash" has all the right credentials to become a festival favorite in this year’s competition.
Like his first feature, 2009’s "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," "Whiplash" explores the plight of the young and the musical — familiar and fertile territory for Chazelle, who was himself a drummer in a competitive high-school jazz program.
Although the comically profane insults Simmons’ character hurls at his players may not be direct quotes from the director’s memory ("that’s not your boyfriend’s dick, do not come early," he berates a trombonist) the short draws heavily from his own experiences with a particularly fearsome teacher. "It was the relationship between teacher and student that I found interesting and that I found I was still processing years later," Chazelle said over the phone from Santa Monica. "I poured a lot of what I was feeling during those years into the script…music was a source of anxiety and fear, but also of incredible passion."
This combination of the hero’s angst and eagerness is made palpable — in the short, at least — largely through the film’s rapid and rhythmic editing style. Dispensing with the verité aesthetic of "Guy and Madeline," where the hand-held camera allowed the visuals to freely luxuriate in whimsical song-and-dance numbers, "Whiplash" renders music as a battlefield. Nervously arranging the eponymous jazz piece on the stand in front of him, the camera cuts around the rehearsal space along the drummer’s eye line so that every action — from the emptying of spit-valves to the rapid tapping of the players’ feet — takes on the serious urgency being demanded by the precise hand keeping the troupes on tempo.
It was Chazelle’s aim to establish the same kind of viscerally affecting, life-or-death stakes within the musical world that one might experience watching a war or gangster movie, a feeling that certainly comes across when the protagonist graduates from flipping someone else’s pages to wielding his sticks. As the conductor’s comically harsh criticisms crescendo from technical to personal, beads of sweat begin to form on the young man’s brow until he finally cracks and sheds a single tear.
While the short ends on this defeatist note, in the feature, the scene is merely part of the first act set up. "The story unfolds from there, after the experience in the rehearsal room," Chazelle explained. “It mainly becomes a story of this kind of mano-a-mano between [student] and teacher and how that progresses as he tries to rise through the ranks.” The bonds and rivalries that arise amongst the musicians will buttress the core relationship, and Melissa Benoist of "Glee" will play the hero's love interest.
While “Guy and Madeline" endlessly showcased its characters' urban enchantment with Boston, in "Whiplash," Chazelle has opted to use the city — this time New York — as more of a menacing force. Although the action is mainly wedged into enclosed, often windowless, spaces, "you'll still feel a sense of the city outside those walls and the way it looms down on people. I wanted to make New York feel intimidating in the same way that the people in the music school feel intimidating to the lead."
In its short form, “Whiplash" exists perfectly as a hermetically sealed entity and it will be interesting to see whether or not the premise can sustain itself over a feature-length running time. Given the strong cast and Chazelle’s proven talent as a director, it’s hard to imagine the audience getting the short end of the stick.