Opening night films at the Sundance Film Festival are a bit like opening acts: The audience is still spilling into town, and while the theater may be packed, the town is still half-full. Opening night films are generally forgettable crowd pleasers too: Sure, they warm the winter audience up, but at the end of the day, everyone’s talking about the films that come on next. Last night, Whiplash – kicking off the 30th annual Sundance Film Festival – was something very different: the rare opening act that may steal some of the bigger headliners’ thunder.
On the face of it, Whiplash is a hard sell: Damien Chazelle’s second feature (following the micro-indie Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) is about a jazz drummer at a top-notch Manhattan music school. And since he’s played by Miles Teller, known for the laconic, boyish charm of The Spectacular Now, you’re forgiven for thinking that Teller plays another dreamy charmer. This isn’t jazz as poetry or jazz as arcane art form: This is technical musical training as (literally) bloody combat. It’s aiming to be the Rocky of jazz, a kind of Full Metal Jacket of drumming, and Teller is monomaniacally focused, bleeding and blistered, intense like we’d never thought we’d see him.
As in Full Metal Jacket, Teller’s drummer is threatened, insulted, hazed and manipulated by a brutal taskmaster, played by J.K. Simmons. A gruff “that guy” known best for films like Juno and Spider-Man 2, Simmons typically plays his assholic demeanor for laughs. Here, he’s dead serious: In his mind, Charlie Parker’s origin story is the moment when the vet musician Bo Jones hurled a cymbal at his head and forced him to be better. So Simmons hurls homophobic slurs, personal insults and a few chairs too. It’s a commanding, brutally unsympathetic performance – and if the film falters the slightest bit toward the end, it’s only because it’s so impossible to imagine him yielding an inch of ground.
But it’s Teller, standing up to Simmons, who is the real revelation. We knew he was funny, but at a dinner table scene with his family, he’s viciously, cruelly cutting. We knew his happy-go-lucky babyface was capable of wide-open emotion, but here he puts some steel behind it. Teller is so dirty-funny and relatable that he’s risked being type-cast as a party-boy bro in films like 21 & Over, Project X and Footloose (not to mention his charming turn in the upcoming That Awkward Moment). In this film, you see him grow, and most of the critics in Sundance rewarded him with raves. Whiplash proves that he can do much more – that Teller, still an opening act in the terms of Hollywood stardom, has a legit shot at becoming a legit headliner.