The opening-night movie at the Sundance Film Festival is often, almost by design, a mild, light, forgettable affair. A lof of filmmakers don’t want the opening slot, and the basic idea is that the bar can’t be raised too high, because then you’ll risk making all the movies that come afterward look disappointing. But Whiplash, which opened the 30th anniversary edition of Sundance last night, didn’t just raise the bar — it electrified the spirits of everyone who saw it, including me. It stars Miles Teller, who had his breakthrough role in last year’s Sundance favorite The Spectacular Now (and will soon be seen in Divergent), and Whiplash confirms that he’s truly a spectacular actor, with a slightly damaged glamour and a face you can’t stop watching because of all the feelings it registers. Last year, I said that Teller reminded me of Elvis Presley. In Whiplash, he’s more like the young John Cusack, but with a cockiness that never hardens into attitude; it’s open and shifting. He plays Andrew Neiman, a brilliant, driven young jazz drummer who is attending the Schaffer Academy in Manhattan, a (fictional) performing-arts institution that, as presented, is one of the best music schools in the country. There, he comes under the tutelage of the school’s fearsome and legendary taskmaster — a scarily exacting maestro of jazz named Terence Fletcher, played, in a bravura performance, by J.K. Simmons. This isn’t the cuddly, twinkly Simmons we’ve grown used to in recent years. In skin-tight black T-shirts, his shaved head set off by mad-dog eyes and a squiggly vein running down the side of his temple like an electric wire, he’s more like Bruce Willis with three times the ferocity.
In Fletcher’s classes, the bands play a highly charged form of modern swing with elements of bebop, and Fletcher runs them like a ruthless, manipulative dictator, playing the kids off against each other, keeping them in line with often obscene insults that he delivers with a percussive hipster snap. The insults would be considered abusive if they weren’t so knowing and funny (well, they are abusive, but you do laugh). That may sound kind of corny, like a real movie situation, except that Simmons, who went to music school himself (where he studied conducting), makes Fletcher an authentically brilliant jazz-in-his-veins hard-ass. His gleaming eyes (and ears) take in everything, and he knows the complex jazz charts inside out. When he halts a rehearsal by squeezing his hand into a fist, as if he were choking it off, and barks out, “Not quite my tempo,” then starts and stops it again, what everyone in the room understands is that he’s hearing things that almost no one else can, honing the musicians like a jeweler. That’s why we like him (at least for a while).
Whiplash is one of the rare films that understands high-level musicians from the inside out. It’s like a jazz version of the very good inside-classical-music drama Mr. Holland’s Opus crossed with a drill-sergeant-from-hell classic like An Officer and a Gentleman, with Simmons in the Lou Gossett Jr. role. Simmons is inspired (it’s the best big-screen part he’s ever had), but it’s Miles Teller’s brash, sensitive, tormented, passionate performance that makes the movie work. Teller really does play the drums, and he convinces you that Neiman is an authentic prodigy who’s willing to make his fingers bleed to play like Buddy Rich. The relationship that develops between Neiman and Fletcher is a vintage love/hate mentor/protégé sadist/victim psychodrama, but there’s an original complexity to it, since the reason that Neiman gets so drawn into Fletcher’s world in the first place is that the kid is an obsessive, neurotic perfectionist himself. Can he live up to his dreams of jazz greatness and hold on to his sanity?
Whiplash is the second feature written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who expanded it out of a short that played at Sundance last year, and he’s a true discovery, with all the gifts and instincts of a born filmmaker: the rhythms, the feelings for punchy organic dialogue, the visual panache (he makes the dark-wood studio-band rehearsal space a seductive chamber of mind games), and the ability to keep surprising an audience without contrivances. (He works dramatic wonders with a head-on car crash.) What haunted me about Whiplash is the fantastic ambivalence that’s built into the film’s vision of Fletcher: He may be a monster, but he’s a monster who lives for beauty — he wants to drive a kid like Neiman into becoming an artist like Charlie Parker, and he thinks that the only way to do it is to bully the poor kid into greatness. He may be wrong, but he’s also right. 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.
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I’ve been coming to Sundance since 1995, and one thing I recall about my early years here, when I was seeing (and loving) movies like Welcome to the Dollhouse and Big Night and I Shot Andy Warhol and Party Girl, is that even though the mood was gossipy and excited, with crowds gawking up and down Main Street and stars whisking by in the then novelty of their dressed-down winter wear, there was nevertheless something hushed and cozy and insular and protective about the festival. It was buzzy, but it was still quiet. The snow that fell on Park City felt like the weather version of a thick down comforter. By this point, independent film had already moved past its quaint, parochial, pre-deal-making-frenzy phase (Pulp Fiction, after all, had come out in 1994). To me, though, Sundance still felt like an art castle in the air.
All that changed in 1997, but I remember thinking at the time: What is so different? Why does the festival suddenly feel more fragmented, more worldly, more jaded, less innocent? It wasn’t the headline-grabbing studio deals, which had been going on for several years. (Shine and The Spitfire Grill were both bought, in paroxysms of bidding-war heat, in 1996.) No, the reason, in hindsight, is that the heartbeat of Sundance had begun to sync up to the early stirrings of the digital world. For the first time, you were really starting to notice cell phones (which, as flaunted by the celebrities and executives here, seemed like some shiny new toy of the elite), and I remember having a conversation with a journalist I knew casually and then learning that my comments about the festival — I’d thought we were just chatting at a bus stop — were quoted on a website. The truth is, I barely knew what a website was. I felt a little violated (since I didn’t think it was an interview), but I got over it and got the point: The information was now flowing in a new way, instantly connecting the world inside us with the world outside us. The line between those those two things was going to get zapped out of existence.
The digital revolution influenced the way that Sudance was covered by journalists and critics, and with the rise of low-budget digital filmmaking, it made independent movies a lot cheaper and therefore a lot more more prevalent; the sheer number of titles multiplied. But now digital technology is starting to influence the very core of the festival: not just which films get shown in the world, but how they get shown. Of the 120 features here this year, it’s predicted that half of them will be picked up by some kind of distributor, but that only half of those 60 or so films will be seen in theaters. The rest will go to one of the mushrooming varieties of video-on-demand, to be watched on televisions, computers, mobile devices, wrist watches. For some filmmakers, this will be seen as a disappointment, but a livable compromise; for others (probably younger), it’s become every bit as legitimate a form of distribution as theatrical. But the real point is that just as I could feel the first, undefined, dispersive stirrings of digital karma in the mid-to-late ’90s, what I’m feeling here now is the early stirrings of a newly elastic definition of what a movie is. The straight-to-small-screen, cutting-edge distribution models are still as curious and exotic, in their way, as cell phones were in 1997. But as the next decade rolls on, they will be less so. And change, once again, will become evolution.