The dead of winter is a lively time in the mountains of Utah. Not only does the region attract legions of skiers looking to traverse what the state proudly hails as the greatest snow on earth, but the Sundance Film Festival draws thousands of indie filmmakers and fans, to say nothing of Hollywood’s elite, looking to sample the latest productions.
Jazz is occupying a prominent place at Sundance this year through “Whiplash,” a new film written and directed by Damien Chazelle.
“Whiplash” tells the vaguely autobiographical tale of a jazz student, Andrew (rising indie star Miles Teller), who longs to become the next Buddy Rich and nearly drums himself over the edge trying. A syncopated story of a young striver, the movie tracks Andrew after he’s been selected to play in a school band led by a sadistic musician (J. K. Simmons, bald and fanged), a teacher so cruel, he evokes every big-screen drill sergeant who’s ever told a recruit to drop and give him 20, 80, 100. The movie was soon christened “Full Metal Juilliard,” but it’s deeper and richer than its nickname suggests.
Entertainment Weekly has this to say about the drama.
This isn’t the cuddly, twinkly Simmons we’ve grown used to in recent years. In skin-tight black T-shirts, his shaved head set off by mad-dog eyes and a squiggly vein running down the side of his temple like an electric wire, he’s more like Bruce Willis with three times the ferocity.
In Fletcher’s classes, the bands play a highly charged form of modern swing with elements of bebop, and Fletcher runs them like a ruthless, manipulative dictator, playing the kids off against each other, keeping them in line with often obscene insults that he delivers with a percussive hipster snap. The insults would be considered abusive if they weren’t so knowing and funny (well, they are abusive, but you do laugh). That may sound kind of corny, like a real movie situation, except that Simmons, who went to music school himself (where he studied conducting), makes Fletcher an authentically brilliant jazz-in-his-veins hard-ass. His gleaming eyes (and ears) take in everything, and he knows the complex jazz charts inside out. When he halts a rehearsal by squeezing his hand into a fist, as if he were choking it off, and barks out, “Not quite my tempo,” then starts and stops it again, what everyone in the room understands is that he’s hearing things that almost no one else can, honing the musicians like a jeweler. That’s why we like him (at least for a while).
"Whiplash" is one of the rare films that understands high-level musicians from the inside out. It’s like a jazz version of the very good inside-classical-music drama "Mr. Holland’s Opus" crossed with a drill-sergeant-from-hell classic like "An Officer and a Gentleman," with Simmons in the Lou Gossett Jr. role. Simmons is inspired (it’s the best big-screen part he’s ever had), but it’s Miles Teller’s brash, sensitive, tormented, passionate performance that makes the movie work. Teller really does play the drums, and he convinces you that Neiman is an authentic prodigy who’s willing to make his fingers bleed to play like Buddy Rich. The relationship that develops between Neiman and Fletcher is a vintage love/hate mentor/protégé sadist/victim psychodrama, but there’s an original complexity to it, since the reason that Neiman gets so drawn into Fletcher’s world in the first place is that the kid is an obsessive, neurotic perfectionist himself. Can he live up to his dreams of jazz greatness and hold on to his sanity?
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