Awards Profile: Whiplash

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Whiplash Awards Profile
Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons give their all to Whiplash, according to early buzz…will Sony Pictures Classics do the same?

Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J. K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser, Austin Stowell, Jayson Blair, Kavita Patil

Synopsis: A young jazz drummer strives for greatness under the tutelage of an aggressive instructor in one of the best music schools in the country.

Why it might succeed:

If you had even a cursory knowledge of the 30th Annual Sundance Film Festival that was held three months ago, you’ve heard of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. From its explosive opening night debut it was the most talked-about movie of the festival and snagged its top two awards: the Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) and the Dramatic Audience Award. The film became the first acquisition of the festival when Sony Pictures Classics bought distribution rights to it almost immediately after it played to a standing ovation.

Whiplash’s origins are similar to that of Bottle Rocket and Half Nelson: a young upstart filmmaker unable to raise enough money to turn his project into a feature film (why he couldn’t, despite his screenplay making the 2012 Black List, is a mystery to me) creates a short film based on a piece of his script in time for Sundance 2013 to entice backers. After it won the Short Film Jury Award he had no problem raising the $3 million he needed and shooting began in September. “Wait a minute,” a hypothetical reader is probably asking at this point, “this movie didn’t start shooting until September and it was completed in time for the festival’s opening in January?!” Sure was. In fact, principal photography took only nineteen days followed by a brief but intense post-production phase. The Little Movie That Could awards narrative practically writes itself with this one, doesn’t it?

And then there are the much-hyped performances. Miles Teller’s profile has been steadily rising over the past few years with strong turns in Rabbit Hole and The Spectacular Now. He stars in Whiplash as Andrew Neyman, a determined young drummer and first-year student at a highly prestigious music academy. One of the most frequent post-screening questions asked was who the “real” drummer was during the solo scenes, so imagine their surprise when they found out Teller did all of his own drumming after months of practice! All those factors plus the intense ordeal that this character is put through by his vicious instructor Terence Fletcher definitely puts him on the radar for a Best Lead Actor nomination.

JK Simmons contender
“Remember how you were in Oz? Make that guy look like the teacher from Mr. Holland’s Opus!” – Chazelle to Simmons. Seriously.

Fletcher himself is played by J.K. Simmons, best-known to moviegoers as J. Jonah Jameson from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and as the exasperated but loving father Mac MacGuff in Juno. Early reviews describe his performance as an abusive, fire-breathing jazz tyrant his most riveting since his breakout in the HBO series Oz. It’s not entirely clear to me if the character is a supporting one or a co-lead, but I’m almost positive he’ll be campaigned in Best Supporting Actor regardless due to the nature of his role (mentor-type characters like coaches and teachers are almost always considered supporting roles unless the film centers solely on them) and to avoid vote-splitting with Teller. Either way, I am very confident that he will be a serious threat for a nomination if not a win. He has the benefit of early buzz from the first half of the year similar to winners Mo’Nique and Christopher Plummer. His character is an intimidating, larger-than-life personality very much like past champs Heath Ledger and, well, Mo’Nique again. He’s also been a respected, longtime performer dedicated mostly to small films and supporting parts who now has a clear shot at career recognition, a factor that helped Jim Broadbent and Melissa Leo take the trophy. Making any sort of confident Oscar prediction so early in the year is ultimately foolhardy, but if there was one that I could make with any certainty, this would be it.

Why it might not:

I won’t tap-dance around my bias, here: Sundance Film Festival darlings, more often then not, end up falling way short of their early hype when I finally see them for myself. Every now and then I’ll come across one or two that surprise me in the best way, but overall, history has taught me to be wary of whatever premieres at that festival becoming talk-of-the-town runaway hits.

That aside, did you notice a theme with all those films I linked to (minus the exceptions)? Not a whole lot of Academy Award winners/nominees, are there? In fact, last year’s nomination-less Fruitvale Station also won Sundance’s top two awards. Same trend runs with Sony Pictures Classics; for every Amour and Midnight in Paris in their lineup that strikes the Academy’s fancy, plenty more are completely shut out or do not live up to their initial awards potential. Whiplash is not their only Oscar hopeful this year, either, and the notoriously frugal distributor may not be willing to spend a lot of money on an aggressive awards campaign for it if they feel they’re better off throwing their weight behind Magic in the Moonlight or Mr. Turner. That might not be a problem if Whiplash was directed by or starred a Hollywood powerhouse with a lot of clout (and even that isn’t always enough if your star is someone like Robert “I’m gonna throw the film’s distributor under the bus even though I half-assed promoting it for Oscars myself” Redford), but that is not the case here. When it comes to campaign muscle, Whiplash is sorely lacking.

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Ouch…

Now, the film will be making a splash at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and exposure to an international audience is always a good thing. But keep in mind that Whiplash is not in the official competition or even Un Certain Regard. No disrespect to Directors’ Fortnight (one of my favorite films from last year premiered there), but that section of the festival is not exactly a hotbed of future Oscar contenders. Not one film that screened there last year was nominated for any Academy Awards (although a few have not yet been released in U.S.), and the two nominees from the year before that – Pablo Larraín’s No and the French animated film Ernest & Celestine – did not win.

It’s also possible that the movie just won’t be up the Academy’s alley. Seeing a young man abused into becoming a great jazz musician for just under two hours isn’t exactly most people’s idea of a good time at the movies. Plus, some dissenters complain that the brutal practice sequences often veer into exaggeration and incredulity, and that criticism will only grow louder and more frequent as more people are exposed to this underdog contender.

Whiplash is currently set for a limited theatrical release on October 10, 2014.

Oscar Potential:
Picture (Jason Blum, David Lancaster and Michel Litvak)
Director (Damien Chazelle)
Lead Actor (Miles Teller)
Supporting Actor (J.K. Simmons)
Original Screenplay (Damien Chazelle)
Original Score (Justin Hurwitz)
Cinematography (Sharone Meir)
Film Editing (Tom Cross)
Production Design (Melanie Jones and Karuna Karmarkar)
Sound Editing (Craig Mann and Ben Wilkins)
Sound Mixing (Craig Mann and Ben Wilkins)