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Damien Chazelle has received many accolades for his intense film WHIPLASH, but there was perhaps none more meaningful than that from Lars Ulrich. The Metallica drummer chose Chazelle’s film about the literal blood, sweat, and tears shed by a drumming student to introduce at the 37th Mill Valley Film Festival. He also took Chazelle under his wing for the post-screening parties. Chazelle was still glowing the next day when I spoke with him, and rightly so, though he did admit that he wasn’t in the audience for the actual screening. Audience reactions make him too nervous.
Chazelle’s own story has a Cinderella quality to it. A year ago he whittled away at his script for WHIPLASH, and screened the resulting short at Sundance, won that festival’s Short Film Jury Award: US Fiction. A year later, he was back with the feature-length film, which won the Grand Jury Prize. I skipped over that part of his story, already well-known, in order to focus on what I found most original and intriguing about the film: the way it shows that genius is the result of talent and a great deal of hard work. It’s not something that films such as AMADEUS or LUST FOR LIFE address, with their versions of Mozart and Van Gogh emerging from the womb with all the skill they need express their talent.
WHIPLASH is a film about passion, jazz, and blood on the drum kit. Miles Teller plays Andrew, a first-year student at the most prestigious music school in New York. His chosen instrument in the drum. His chosen pastime, becoming the greatest living drummer. His dream might just come true when the conductor of the senior jazz band, Fletcher, played with imperious sadism by J.K. Simmons, hears him practicing late one night, and eventually invites him to join his elite group. Andrew learns that dreams and nightmares are two sides of the same coin, and so are greatness and madness as Fletcher pushes Andrew further than he thought he could, or should, go in pursuit of greatness.
Based on Chazelle’s own experience of being terrified by a music teacher in high school, WHIPLASH is a battle of wills between Andrew and Fletcher that somehow makes us understand both Andrews passion for excellence, and Fletcher’s unorthodox methods to foster it. It was only natural that I asked Chazelle if telling this story cinematically was a catharsis of some kind, or if it engendered flashbacks. Thoughtful, witty, and as energetic as a drum riff, his answer was as richly layered as the film itself. We went on to talk about the difference between jazz drumming and that for rock-&-roll, as defined by Buddy Rich, making Miles Teller bleed as he got in shape for actually playing the drums, and why “good job” may be the most harmful words in the English language.
The good news is that Chazelle will be re-teaming with Teller for a musical set in Los Angeles entitled LA LA LAND. He promises that Teller won’t have to bleed for that one.
Click here to listen to the interview (16:41) WHIPLASH — Damien Chazelle Interview.