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Sundance 2014, Day One: A director is born

Posted by Ty Burr  January 17, 2014 02:40 AM

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Whiplash.jpgBack in 2009, a young director named Damien Chazelle turned his little black-and-white Harvard student film into the talk of the Tribeca Film Festival. "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench" was a no-budget Boston-set jazz musical shot in the style of a John Cassavetes movie; it shouldn't have worked, but it did. There was real filmmaking talent there, too, but the whole thing felt like a lovely fluke. Who knew if we'd ever hear from the kid again?

Tonight, at the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival, we heard from Damien Chazelle again. And it was the sound of an arrival.

The movie is called "Whiplash," after an obscure (but ravishing) jazz composition by Hank Levy, and jazz is just one of the things on this movie's mind. It stars the up-and-coming Miles Teller, so good in 2013's "The Spectacular Now," as Andrew Nieman, a drummer and student at a New York music conservatory who burns to be the next Buddy Rich. And, no, he doesn't care that no one else in his age bracket has no idea who Buddy Rich is.

The reigning god at the conservatory -- the teacher every student both thirsts and dreads to study under -- is a sadistic jazz purist named Terrence Fletcher, a hipster drill sergeant who rules over the school's competitive student band with a mixture of expertise and scatological abuse. He is played by J.K. Simmons in one of the more scarifying performances of his long career. Watching "Whiplash," I felt like I was seeing the first half of Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket" play out in 14/8 time. You could also call it the "Black Swan" of jazz drummer movies.

The film slowly becomes a battle of wills between Andrew and Fletcher, and while the performances are extremely good -- Teller, in particular, comes of age in this one -- it's the direction that puts you into a sustained swoon. Chazelle loves jazz and he loves a moving shot, and the combination of the two, in the rehearsal and band competition sequences, can just about give you a contact high, the camera swinging (on the beat, dammit) around the musicians to Fletcher and then rack-focusing from the freaked-out Andrew (he's just been thrown into the pit of the varsity team) to Fletcher's hand as he gives the small, sharp, three-motion gesture for the band to dig into the title tune.

The camerawork, gleaming but with a dark undertow, is by Sharone Meir, and the fantastic editing -- again, on the beat or skittering across it -- is by Tom Cross, but the movie is Chazelle's all the way. It's been a while since I've seen a young filmmaker this confidently invested in formalism as opposed to slackadaisical mumblecore realism. Maybe since Darren Aronofsky with "Pi" back in 1998. "Whiplash" sometimes -- sometimes more than sometimes -- goes overboard with style, with the look-at-me brio of a talented director coming into the full measure of his strengths while still figuring out what he can and can't do. But it never loses sight of its story, and that's crucial. Chazelle first made this as a short last year, but only in one or two places do you feel the feature's energy flag as it expands and invents. Maybe it was a feature in his head all along.

The climax goes places I didn't expect, paring everything away until it's only Andrew and Fletcher one-upping each other on a festival stage, and then it tests the audience's patience in ways that pay off beautifully -- when the movie cut to black at the end, there was a stunned pause, then a delirious roar of approval from the Sundance audience. Most directors, I'm guessing, would make sure to distance their hero from the villain in the big showdown, because it would make us feel good about ourselves. By the end of "Whiplash," though, Teller's Andrew has become the great drummer he always wanted to be and, very possibly, as great a monster as his mentor.

The film doesn't have a US distributor yet -- Sony bought international rights hours before the screening -- but I can't imagine that'll last. More to the point, "Whiplash" serves notice that we’ll be hearing from Damien Chazelle for a long time to come.whiplash2.jpg

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

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