Sundance 2014: Miles Teller Kicks Drumming Ass in Intense 'Whiplash'
by Alex Billington
January 17, 2014
What a way to kick off the Sundance Film Festival. One of the Opening Night films this year is Whiplash, a kick ass feature version of a short film that filmmaker Damien Chazelle premiered at Sundance last year. The story is about an up-and-coming drummer named Andrew, played by Miles Teller, who is studying at a prestigious school for music in New York. He comes under the watch of one of the most hardcore teachers there, played by J.K. Simmons, who attempts to train and drill him to be one of the best drummers to ever play. The film is an intense study on passion and believing in your own talent, and never being discouraged.
While the story in Whiplash seems rather straightforward at first - a young musical prodigy is noticed by a prestigious jazz band teacher, who brings him in to improve and hone him - it doesn't take long for things to start twisting and turning. Chazelle's script rides a fine line between intensity and levity, as well as success and failure, by taking the story to places not many are expecting, but it's right where things need to go to keep these characters—and subsequently the audience—on their toes. There are moments of natural humor sprinkled in appropriately between scenes where Simmons is yelling, at the top of his lungs, at his students, trying to get them to improve by chastising them to the extreme. But there is a point to all of this intensity.
Sundance must have chosen this film to open the festival because it epitomizes the indie spirit. While the merits and actions of the characters can be debated, the message at its core cannot—it's about believing in yourself and your own talent, against all odds; never being discouraged, and accomplishing anything despite being told you can't. That kind of mindset the exact mindset needed to succeed in independent filmmaking, and the film very delicately balances the idea of success and failure. In one person's eyes you may be a failure, but the message is that it's just as important to have this criticism, so long as in the end you consider yourself a success, and believe in that notion completely, rejecting the other person's erroneous judgement.
Above all else, 26-year-old actor Miles Teller (seen in Footloose, The Spectacular Now, 21 & Over) shows how truly talented he is in Whiplash. Not only being an impressive drummer/musician of his own, but his range in this film is phenomenal. I thought I'd seen it all from both Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, but the two push themselves to extremes in ways I never thought possible, and it's riveting to watch. They battle each other verbally, and you can truly feel deeply every last word they say (or yell). The film is very intense and does play on that, but there's also some humanity behind it, and we find that in these two individuals.
What more can I say besides that this film kicks ass. I found myself bobbing my head and tapping my foot throughout. It's inspiring for artists, creators, filmmakers, musicians or anyone else who feels they've been discouraged by those around them who don't believe in them. Whiplash is only the second feature film by director Damien Chazelle, and therefore isn't perfectly polished with a few odd moments and a weak subplot involving a girl Andrew is pursuing. Brushing aside those minor issues, this is still a film unlike anything I've seen, firing on all cylinders. It's invigorating, it's exciting and amusing to watch, it will challenge some to think about their own lives in a new way, and it will put Chazelle on the map as a filmmaker to believe in.
Alex's Sundance 2014 Rating: 9 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing