Review: Whiplash (Sundance 2014)
REVIEW: One of the best things about attending a festival like Sundance is that you get to go in fresh to pretty much every film. Everything's so new there's not much of a chance for anything to build buzz before the fest. It's all about discovering the unknown. Lots of movies will be good, some will be terrible, and just a few (if we're lucky) may be great. It's both a blessing and a curse to Sundance 2014- the thirtieth anniversary of the festival- that the fest's opening night film just might be its best.
WHIPLASH is based on a short film that rocked last year's edition, but not having seen it, based on the one-line description in the Sundance program I expected this to be one of a number of “coming-of-age” films Sundance programs every year. My assumption was dead-wrong because that's not at all what this is. Shining a spotlight on the apparently vicious world of jazz musicianship- where so much of the playing is purely technical and rigidly adhered to in order not to throw off a band- WHIPLASH is being called “FULL METAL JACKET at Julliard.” That's pretty damn apt.
Miles Teller plays a first year-student at a world-class musical college who aspires to be the next Buddy Rich. For him, being at a prestigious college is nothing, because he won't be pushed the way he needs to. Rather, he aspires to join a tough instructor's top jazz ensemble, but little does he know he'll be pushed to his limit and beyond by the tough as nails instructor- played by a ferocious J.K. Simmons.
Simmons has his best role since OZ as the dictatorial instructor, abusive to his players both emotionally and physically. Clad head to tow in black, his t-shirts showing off his intimidating build, Simmons is a nightmare, although a bit of humanity seeps through every now and then. As his pupil, Teller suffers and suffers, practicing to the point that he bleeds all over the drum kits, obsessed with the kind of perfection a drummer like Buddy Rich embodied. That said, if you've ever heard the infamous tapes of Rich cursing his band, you'll know this comes at a price. WHIPLASH is all about that price.
Teller- who just as often as he's brilliant in something like RABBIT HOLE or THE SPECTACULAR NOW is wasted in movies like 21 & OVER and THAT AWKWARD MOMENT- is better than ever as the young drummer. What's especially interesting is the physicality of the performance which illustrates how exhausting and grueling this type of jazz performance can be. I have no idea how much drumming Teller did on his own, but he's entirely convincing. I'd wager Teller and Simmons both give award-worthy performances, with a nice little dramatic turn by Paul Reiser (yes, THAT Paul Reiser) being the icing on the cake.
For director/writer Damien Chazelle, WHIPLASH is the kind of movie that makes an indie guy like him a star. Throughout, Chazelle keeps you on the edge of your seat, conducting the audience like Simmons conducts his band. Here and there, you may think you know where it's going, but every-time it threatens to get predictable, Chazelle gut punches you with an “out of nowhere” twist you'll never seen coming. The use of jazz standards, with their impossible timing and rhythms plays an important part in the film, and should appeal to aficionados, while encouraging others to scour the iTunes catalog. Chazelle seems to know this world inside out.
Apparently, Sony has already bought the rights to this, and it's no wonder as this has the makings of a crossover hit. Regardless of whether or not you know anything about music, we can all relate to the pursuit of excellence, and the exorbitant cost it can sometimes demand. I was on the edge of my seat through, and even though it's only the opening night film it sets the bar really damn high.
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|Extra Tidbit:||Chazelle also wrote THE LAST EXORCISM 2 and the upcoming GRAND PIANO.|