Review: Miles Teller and JK Simmons in 'Whiplash' starts Sundance on a high note
PARK CITY - My whole life, as long as I can remember, I have had the same goals for myself. I have always wanted to write, and I have always wanted my work to be read and seen and shared.
There have been points in my life where I've had people comment how nice it must be to have such a clear sense of purpose, and when people say that, I try to smile and take it in the spirit it is intended. The truth, though, is that having that strong a drive to do something is a double-edged sword. Yes, when you know what you want from this world, it can be an advantage because you can work towards it and you can stay focused on it. But the other side of that is the gnawing fear that you will not accomplish what you want to accomplish, and that all the work in the world cannot guarantee you an audience. Just because I write every single day does not mean that my work will be read or seen or shared. Beyond that, just because I write every day does not mean that my work deserves to be read or seen or shared, and that thought terrifies me.
Committing to a craft that relies on others for you to be able to do it is a life I wouldn't wish on anyone, and often, when you see films about artists, it almost feels like wish fulfillment, like they're rewriting the world to give themselves everything that real life has not. One of the things that I loved about "Inside Llewyn Davis" was that the Coens chose to tell a story about someone at the moment where they realize that their dreams are not going to come true and there is no magic moment where it all pays off and the world opens up for you and suddenly you are recognized for the misunderstood genius you are. The Coens perfectly captured the feeling of realizing that maybe all the effort in the world isn't enough, and maybe you're never going to be the thing you want to be. With "Whiplash," the opening night film for the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, writer/director Damien Chazelle has chosen to paint a picture of a young musician wrestling with his own desire for greatness and the hard truths of what it takes to attain that, and while I don't think the film completely works, it builds to something great, and there is an undeniable power to it.
Miles Teller stars as Andrew, a drummer who has managed to get into the Schaffer Music Academy, one of the best music schools in the country. There's one instructor in particular who Andrew wants to impress, Terence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons. Fletcher leads the school's award-winning jazz ensemble, and he has a reputation as a guy who makes great musicians. Very early in the film, Andrew catches Fletcher's attention, and he gets his opportunity to join the ensemble. What emerges is a smart and ultimately satisfying look at just how far artists are willing to go to pursue greatness, and the film asks some tough questions about what is acceptable both from the artist and from a mentor when it comes to motivation. If someone is a monster and abuses the people he instructs, but the result is that he gets real greatness from them, does that end justify the means? Do you have to sacrifice for what you want, and how much of a sacrifice is enough?
When I first moved to Los Angeles, I went through several roommates during the first few years. People dropped in and out of my life, and I saw a number of people fold up and quit when things didn't happen for them immediately. There was one person in particular who I met and lived with for a while, though, who has gone on to a career of real accomplishment, and within the first week I knew him, I knew it would happen. He was a jazz drummer, and he had more natural talent than anyone I had ever met at that point. He may still be the most gifted person I've ever been close to, and there were times where I would look at the almost baffling amount of ability he had, and it would infuriate me. He was a genius, someone who heard and felt music in a different way, and when I listen to the albums he's made with his band The Bad Plus or I hear his side project Happy Apple, I am still blown away at the raw brilliance of both his technique and his artistry. When he first moved to LA, he went to apply as a student at the Musician's Institute and, at the end of his audition, they turned him down as a student and offered him a job as a teacher. When I saw how easy it came to Dave, it was hard to make myself write every day, hard to believe that effort could ever get me anywhere close to the baseline brilliance where Dave began.
For most artists, though, it is not easy. There are very few David Kings out there, people who are so effortlessly good that they make it look easy. For the most part, if you want to excel, you have to be willing to give yourself over to something 100%. I have lost relationships in my life because I could not give them the time they deserved, and I have lost track of people because I was so focused on my own goals. Even now at 43, I still find myself often giving up things on the personal side so that I can pursue things on the professional side, and I often wonder if I'm fooling myself. Is it worth it? Should I be willing to be unhappy in order for me to succeed? Should I be okay with missing out on things in my social life so that I can pursue the thing I want to do professionally?
As Andrew struggles to justify his place in the jazz ensemble, Fletcher piles on the abuse, and it is amazing to see what happens when a director finally gives Simmons room to really stretch as a performer. He is great in the film, and he doesn't temper the harder aspects of Fletcher's personality or try to play him more sympathetic than he should be. Simmons knows that greatness and manners are not necessarily related, and he makes Fletcher a hard man to like. He is manipulative. He is calculating. He is cruel. And, yet, when he talks candidly to Andrew at one point about how important it was for Charlie Parker to suffer so that he could end up properly motivated, he isn't completely wrong. He is as desperate to find and cultivate greatness as Andrew is to accomplish it, and the film raises these questions without coming down completely on one side or the other.
Miles Teller is building a really strong and interesting filmography for himself. While he's very good in comedies, he's got more to offer. When you see him in "The Spectacular Now," it's obvious that he could have a long and successful Hollywood career playing the motormouthed likable guy, and he could make it look easy, and he'd probably be very well liked in the process. But when you look at where he was introduced on film, in John Cameron Mitchell's piercing "Rabbit Hole," there is depth to him, and in this film, he does a beautiful job of playing both the drive it takes to become someone like Andrew in the first place and pangs of longing for something more normal that can complicate those dreams. Teller isn't a trained drummer, but he throws himself into this performance in such a way that it feels right. Whether or not he hits every beat correctly, he is completely believable in the scenes where he immerses himself, trying to be better, trying to get faster.
Likewise, J.K. Simmons is one of those guys who is always good, but who has rarely been given as much to do as he is here, and he rises to the occasion. It would be easy to play Fletcher as an asshole without anything redeeming, but Simmons makes it hard to dismiss him. There is an arrogance that comes with being great at something in many cases, and from the moment he appears in the film, he gives off an aura of someone who knows all the secrets, someone who can pass them along. It makes sense that Andrew would be drawn to him, and it makes sense that the students would be willing to take his abuse because they believe that if they survive it, there is a reward waiting.
By far, the best part of the film is the last twenty minutes or so, and it's so good that it almost makes up for some of the missteps along the way. At one point, there's a car crash, and it's that same exact shot we've seen now in about 1000 movies where a giant bus suddenly looms up in the driver's side window out of nowhere. I'd like to call an official moratorium on that moment, because while it does indeed get a physical response out of an audience, it's cheap, and it's gone well beyond cliche now. Likewise, there's a subplot involving a lawyer that is introduced gracelessly and that works in a very mechanical way to motivate something else. Once Andrew and Fletcher reconnect, though, the film picks up, and it culminates in exactly the kind of perfect moment that many artists chase their whole life. It is thematically appropriate, and I can imagine Chazelle reverse engineering his film to get to this ending. It left me exhilarated, and while not every part of "Whiplash" works, it is a strong introduction to a new voice, and a remarkable showcase for two actors who know exactly what to do when they're given material this strong.
"Whiplash" seems like a strong place to start this year's festival, and I'm not remotely surprised to hear that Sony Worldwide has already picked up the rights to the movie.