The Year of 'Whiplash' - Damien Chazelle Inspires Through Passion
by Alex Billington
September 30, 2014
"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job." It's very refreshing, and admittedly exciting, to watch a young filmmaker's career take off over the course of a year. At the Sundance Film Festival in January 2014, the very first film I screened was Whiplash from writer/director Damien Chazelle. It blew me away. Now, almost 10 months later, the film is still playing strong at the New York Film Festival where I caught it for a second time. Over the last year it has also played at Cannes, Toronto, Deauville, Helsinki, Busan, and plenty of other films festivals/events/premieres all over the world earning rave reviews wherever it shows up. It deserves that praise because it truly is an outstanding, inspiring film.
On one hand it's kind of funny that a film where a teacher yells at his students, and says ridiculous things like that quote about "good job", is the one that is teaching so many lessons. On the other, it all makes sense – anyone going against the grain to pursue their passion(s) in this world is going to encounter resistance. It's overcoming that resistance, plus seeing past the criticism and failure, that is one of the biggest lessons to learn from Whiplash. Essentially: if you really are that talented, the prove it, show us how great you can be. And here Damien Chazelle definitely proves he's got it, everyone is feeling it. Producer-on-the-film Jason Reitman tweeted at the first premiere at Sundance: "Ladies and Gentlemen, Damien Chazelle has arrived."
I went to see Whiplash at the New York Film Festival press screening for my second dose. When I love a film that much at a festival, I try to go see it a second time to get a better idea of why it's so good and how it holds up upon multiple viewings. There's nothing to worry about with this one - Whiplash is sensational, it's as intense and as enjoyable to watch as it was the first time, flaws and all, and I still will recommend it to any/everyone who has a passion. I'm not the only one who's been raving about catching Whiplash twice, my friends/colleagues Jeff Wells of Hollywood Elsewhere and Mike Ryan of ScreenCrush also wrote articles about their experiences seeing the film for a second time. The love for it continues to grow as time goes on.
After premiering at Sundance on opening night, the film won the Grand Jury Prize & Audience Award at the festival before going on to play at other fests. The trailer is out here and the film's official poster features a high quantity of quotes from critics all over praising it with endless hyperbole. Chazelle actually adapted the feature from his own short film, about a stern band teacher (played by J.K. Simmons) who yells at his students in hopes of bringing out the best. In the feature he wraps the story around jazz drummer Andrew Neyman, played by Miles Teller, who knows he's destined to become a legend like Charlie "Bird" Parker and stops at nothing to prove it. The last 20 minutes of it had my heart racing as much as the very first time.
Actor J.K. Simmons working with director Damien Chazelle and actor Miles Teller on the set of Whiplash.
Aside from the fight-the-resistance concept of the film being so unique and so deeply connected with the spirit of indie filmmaking, Whiplash is an energetic and electric film that boasts excellent technical work on top of smart storytelling. In fact, if there's anywhere that it has problems it's in the story, especially with the relationship and the girl in the film, but that's a whole other discussion for another time. I love the way the film starts on a drum beat, and the way it all ends, leaving everyone still buzzing from all that happens. This second time around I was listening very closely to (and enjoying) the music and was even more impressed by how perfect the music is. "Rushing or dragging?" I even listened closely for the differences in Neyman's drumming and it's there. Not to mention the terrific final number, which always has me bobbing my head.
Above all, Miles Teller is phenomenal as Neyman, and really takes this on completely and delivers in full. His performance is one that will be remembered for his entire career, and even if he doesn't up winning any awards, he has won a spot in the hearts of many and will nab plenty of other great roles from this film. I'm still convinced it's actually him drumming the entire time, he's that good and that committed. He's even funny, and all the instant reactions and beats are spot on, everything works perfectly. Teller even mentioned recently how much he felt "dead inside" working on the Divergent adaptation; I can only imagine that was countered by his work on Whiplash. He sets the bar so high in Whiplash and it'll be a challenge to see him live up to this again, even though Teller is also great in The Spectacular Now and the Footloose remake, too.
I also must mention J.K. Simmons, who plays hard ass Terence Fletcher in the film. I've always admired Simmons and appreciated his work, whether it be as J. Jonah Jameson in Raimi's Spider-Man series or in Thank You for Smoking, but here he really goes the distance in the same way Teller does. His performance is extraordinary, and what really intrigued me the second time was that he's playing the brash, abrasive, asshole character that nobody should like – yet somehow he's likeable. Or at least, you can't hate him, even when he screws over Neyman or yells at him in the most condescending way, it's done in a way where it all adds up to something. Being courageous enough to play this vile of a character is impressive, but taking it to the lengths that Simmons takes it, without making everyone hate him, is an astonishing accomplishment.
It was a joy to experience Whiplash for a second time and know that it lives up. It's just as inspiring, just as exciting, just as enjoyable to watch a second time, and I'm sure that will still be the case for a third, fourth and fifth time, when/if I get around to it. Chazelle is going to go on to have a fantastic career after this (he's already signed on for a Neil Armstrong biopic next) and Whiplash is going to go far in the awards season, collecting all the acclaim it deserves. If there's any film that embodies the spirit of passion, this is it. And I hope it goes on to inspire many more people, whether they're filmmakers or musicians or entrepreneurs or artists, to be all they can be even when there's overwhelming resistance. Never stop believing. Never give up.