Commencing Cinematheque's month-long Damien Chazelle retrospective (which includes an in-person visit on February 23) is his Oscar-winning breakout, Whiplash (2014), which expands upon the ideology of his short film from the prior year. In an uncanny way, the intense and riveting feature, set almost exclusively at the reputable (if fictitious) Shaffer Conservatory of Music in NYC, feels like a more dramatic re-envisioning of the Freaks And Geeks episode "I'm With The Band" when Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel) awkwardly auditions for local suburban rockers Dimension. While the scene in the television show possesses a playfulness of spirit, Chazelle's script takes a deeper dive into the psychological ambition of aspiring 19-year-old studio session drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller). Manipulated into exalting the very Jo Jones and Charlie Parker story that the intimidating, merciless professor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, channeling his inner Gordon Ramsay) idolizes, Chazelle fervently leads his narrative with sharp rhythmically-timed editing (aided by Tom Cross) to the tune of the titular Hank Levy jazz standard and other compositions of the ilk.
Some critics have knocked Whiplash for its unrealistic portrayal of competitive spirit, but the film is rather cleverly established as an emotionally lucid stand against bullying and the rigidity of old-school methods, as it analyzes the complex dynamics of mentor and student in the adaptable art of improvisatory performance. Chazelle obviously sees a bit of himself in the drive of Teller's character; and his adoration for the roots and modern soul of jazz music have proven to be a recurring theme in his work. —Grant Phipps