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Sundance Review: 'Whiplash' Evokes High Anxiety

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood January 17, 2014 at 1:43PM

The first buzz title unveiled at Sundance, Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash," is an intense anxiety dream about a young college jazz musician ("The Spectacular Now"'s Miles Teller) who aspires to be a memorable drummer like Buddy Rich.
Miles Teller
Miles Teller
Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in "Whiplash"
Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons in "Whiplash"

The first buzz title unveiled at Sundance, Damien Chazelle's adrenaline-pumped performance anxiety nightmare "Whiplash," stars a top-notch Miles Teller as a young college jazz musician ("The Spectacular Now") who aspires to be a memorable drummer on the order of Buddy Rich.

He's isn't there, not by a long shot, as his jazz band instructor--read toxic drill sergeant--played in fierce "Oz" mode by J.K. Simmons ("Juno"), keeps reminding him at top volume (think "Full Metal Jacket"). Teller, one of the more promising young actors working today, holds his own with Simmons, who calls up that one teacher who inspired dread and awe, who you desperately wanted to please and never could.

Producer Jason Blum ("Paranormal Activity") had admired Chazelle's jazzy semi-autobiographical feature screenplay "Whiplash," and teamed with Right of Way producers Helen Estabrook and Couper Samuelson to create a three-scene short directly lifted from a sequence in the script. Chazelle's short won the 2013 U.S. Sundance Short Film Jury Prize. Less than a year later, with production and financing support from Bold Films, his "Whiplash" feature opened at Sundance. (Technically Chazelle made a feature student film. But this is my "first big feature," he said at the Q & A.) 

The cast is comprised of real musicians. Simmons, 59, Teller, 26, and Chazelle, 28, have studied music, but Teller never studied jazz drumming and had to go into deep training in order to pull off sessions so intense and excruciating that they left his hands bleeding. What inspired him? "Well, J.K. Simmons is pretty terrifying," Teller said at the Q & A. Another professional drummer helped with some of the more demanding sequences and post-recording, but most of the drumming is Teller himself. 

Sundance is always about talent discovery. Teller broke out with "The Spectacular Now" last year. And Chazelle is a gifted young director who is now on his way. And sometimes it's about future Oscar contenders. (Indie hit "Fruitvale" did not make the cut.) Some are already calling up Oscar talk for Simmons. That will depend on who picks up the movie. Sony Worldwide has foreign. 

This article is related to: Sundance Film Festival, Festivals, Reviews, Reviews, Whiplash, J.K. Simmons, Miles Teller, Damien Chazelle, Damien Chazelle

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.