Jazz movie 'Whiplash' drums up Oscar buzz

Published October 9, 2014
(L-R) Actress Melissa Benoist, actor Miles Teller, writer/director Damien Chazelle, actor Paul Reiser and actor J.K. Simmons at the premiere of "Whiplash" on October 6, 2014 in Los Angeles. – Photo by AFP
(L-R) Actress Melissa Benoist, actor Miles Teller, writer/director Damien Chazelle, actor Paul Reiser and actor J.K. Simmons at the premiere of "Whiplash" on October 6, 2014 in Los Angeles. – Photo by AFP

LOS ANGELES: Whiplash, about a young jazz drummer and his bullying music teacher, is generating Oscar buzz even before its release this week.

The movie, which won two top prizes at the Sundance Film Festival in January, is even being mentioned as a possible Best Picture nominee for the Academy Awards in February.

It tells the story of promising drumming student Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) and his abuse at the hands of sadistic jazz teacher Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), in an elite Manhattan conservatory.

Director Damien Chazelle, himself a jazz drummer, said he wanted to dramatize what he had gone through to learn the art, which was “fear of missing a beat, fear of losing tempo. Most overwhelmingly, fear of my conductor.

“I wanted to make a movie about music that felt like a war movie, or a gangster movie -- where instruments replaced weapons, where words felt as violent as guns,” he said.

From its opening scene the film focuses relentlessly on the protege/mentor relationship between Neyman and Fletcher, a perfectionist who demands that his students give everything -- and then some.

Neyman idolizes legendary jazz drummer Buddy Rich, and takes to heart an anecdote about Charlie Parker -- who reportedly transformed himself into a jazz great after having a cymbal thrown at his head for making a mistake on stage.

The young drummer soon makes it onto the college band but not without tears, bloodied hands and a descent into almost obsessive playing which cuts him off from all normal relationships, including his girlfriend and father.

Extremes of emotional abuse

“We went to extremes of psychological and emotional torture and abuse, “said Simmons, whose past roles include the ball-breaking editor of the Daily Bugle in the Spider-Man movies.

“We see a level of ambition ... in Andrew's character ... and then we see my character ramp it up and ramp it up and get him to a level of obsession that is parallel to mine and then the fireworks continue from there.

“The fireworks do, indeed, continue, climaxing in a Carnegie Hall concert scene where the play on words of Whiplash -- a jazz standard with an unusual time signature -- is fully developed.

Teller said his character is just “a kid who at first doesn't necessarily know what he wants to do.

“He is willing to sacrifice everything for (success). Including a pretty girlfriend ... his relationship with his parents, with his dad, or with everybody really,” Teller said.

Chazelle admits the film poses ethical questions, about art and abuse of power.

“There is a moral question in the movie that I wanted to pose which is: 'If we accept that sometimes terrible means lead to good ends, do we accept that the ends justify the means?'” he told AFP.

Critics have raved about the film, which won the Grand Jury Prize for drama and the Audience Award for drama at this year's Sundance festival, and was nominated for the Queer Palm in Cannes.

The Rotten Tomatoes movie review site gives it a 96 percent critics' approval rating, calling the film “intense, inspiring and well-acted,” while the Hollywood Reporter tipped it for Oscars acting nominations for both Simmons and Teller, and possibly a Best Picture nod for the film.

Whiplash, made with a merriment and daring, is the movie equivalent of a jazz solo that takes you into the next world then touches you back down in this one,” wrote Entertainment Weekly's film critic.

Whiplash opens on limited release on Friday in the United States, later this month in Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, and worldwide in December and January.

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