In 2013, Damien Chazelle premiered at Sundance a short film called Whiplash designed to build up interest in creating a feature film version of the story. You already know, I’m sure, that this gambit succeeded and Chazelle emerged as one of the rising stars in all of Hollywood.
The short co-stars JK Simmons as Terence Fletcher the psychotic jazz teacher. Simmons would not only go on to co-star in the feature length version, he would win a whole bevy of awards for the performance, including an Academy Award. His performance as Fletcher in the short is fully formed, he’s every bit as harrowing and anxiety-inducing and prone to explosive anger as he is in the feature film. We don’t get the full portrait of the character’s psychologically destructive power in these eighteen minutes, but we get a lot of it.
While Fletcher’s casting (thankfully) didn’t change between the short and the feature, there’s a different actor in place as Andrew Neiman: Johnny Simmons (no relationship to JK) plays Andrew Neiman rather than Miles Teller. I adore Teller’s performance in the feature-length Whiplash, so I have no objections to this re-casting. Johnny Simmons doesn’t have much to do in the short, so it’s hard to pass too much judgment on the performance, but having seen Teller’s take, Simmons feels too much like a blank slate. However, he fits in just right as a drummer, much like Teller is convincing in in his performances.
The short is a single scene, about fifteen minutes plus an intro and credits, that is pulled almost verbatim into the feature film. It’s Neiman’s first rehearsal, and pretty much every memorable beat is there: the explosive anger at the wind player who thinks he’s out of tune and, especially, “dragging or rushing.” My skin crawls with tension a little bit just thinking about the face slap.
Beyond the imposing acting by JK Simmons and the thought-provoking dynamic of a tyrant creating in charge of creating joyful art, the music itself really pops off the film. I’m not sure exactly how Chazelle and his sound team recorded it, here or in the feature, but it sounds so crisp and professional yet authentically diegetic. When the group starts playing it really feels like you are sitting in a room with the best youth jazz band in the world.
It is obviously just a little taster, giving viewers just one of the many flavors that would be a whole buffet in the full film that came out just one year later, but it correctly suggests the potent power of the story and the creative team. If you’ve seen the feature film, there’s not much to see here — it is, again, just a scene that would be done in full, and better, in the complete movie — but it’s nonetheless an enjoyable glimpse into the development of a great film.
- Review Project: Damien Chazelle Retrospective