This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival (their 37th!) featured guest programmers, or as the fest likes to call them “Artists in Residence,” Metallica. The fearsome foursome (or whatever their nickname is) actually did a fairly solid job of programming, starting with Kirk Hammett’s schlocky selection of 1971’s Dracula vs. Frankenstein, because apparently Hammett is a “noted horror movie aficionado.” This was followed a few days later by bassist Robert Trujillo’s pick, Jaco, about famed jazz bassist Jaco Pastorious, because BASS. Last night, fest goers were treated to Lars Ulrich’s choice of Whiplash, a kick-ass movie about a megalomaniacal, asshole musician pushing a drumming student to the brink of insanity. Because a megalomaniacal, asshole musician presenting such a movie just makes sense, I suppose.
But all snark aside, Ulrich did a nice job both introducing the film and leading a pretty interesting Q&A afterwards. He started off the night by saying most people figured he picked the film because it’s a story all about a drummer, but he quickly set the record straight by saying “No, I picked this movie because it’s a great f*cking film that also just so happens to be about a drummer.” [Editor’s Note: If you’ve seen Some Kind of Monster, Lars Ulrich will forever be one of those guys whose voice you instantly imitate in your head whenever you read anything he says.]
And he’s right. Whiplash is hoping the break the stereotype of Sundance films that win acclaim at the fest but fall well short of expectations once they hit mainstream theaters. In fact, if J.K. Simmons isn’t in serious consideration for a Best Actor Oscar nomination I’ll be grinding my teeth like James Hetfield during an 80s coke binge. But back to the event at hand.
After a nice hat tip to the Century Cinemas Theater in Corte Madera for being the local drummer’s theater of choice for summer blockbusters, Ulrich talked in depth about how he came to discover Whiplash at this year’s Sundance Fest. Already planning to attend due to use of Metallica songs in Kat Candler’s amazing film Hellion, Ulrich said a friend told him he had to see Whiplash. He did, and was blown away. He’s since seen the film three times and loves it more each time. After tooting the Whiplash horn about its successful festival run, Ulrich brought up the film’s first-time writer/director Damien Chazelle, who looks like he’s about 19 years old. He’s actually almost 30 but any aspiring filmmaker in the crowd surely gave a nice hand-wring over the fact some kid had hit it big. Or maybe that was just me.
Having not really known the backstory of how Whiplash came to be, it was interesting to hear how Chazelle made a short of the film which got into Sundance and from there it was able to get funding and a ton of support from the Sundance Institute itself. While certainly not the first filmmaker to utilize the “short to feature” playbook, it was nice to see it actually work out for a person. It also finally dawned on me that this is the same Damien Chazelle who wrote the extremely cool Elijah Wood/John Cusack thriller Grand Piano so clearly, we’re dealing with a rising talent here.
Lars, who seemed to either realize that most of the elderly crowd probably had no idea who the hell he was (he is getting kind of hunched over and Gollum looking after years of drumming I suppose), Ulrich brought up young Chazelle who, after the usual directorial salutations, let the film work the crowd. And work the crowd it did. Whiplash is an intense movie, kind of a Full Metal That Thing You Do! and it was surprising to hear laughter as J.K. Simmons’ vicious band leader/teacher Fletcher berates sissy boy Miles Teller’s Andrew with homophobic slurs and stabbing personal insults [Editor’s Note: Spontaneous expressions of joy at the prospect of Miles Teller being brutally dressed down are the least-surprising thing ever.]. Perhaps people thought it was funny or it could have just been nervous laughter but it definitely made for awkwardness in an already uncomfortable movie. But part of what’s so great about Whiplash is the depth of emotions it elicits. To each their own and maybe outdated homophobic rantings still land on certain demographics.
As the credits rolled Ulrich came back onstage and did a fun and leisurely Q&A while gnawing on a toothpick. But for as much as I figured he’d hog the spotlight, Ulrich’s love for the film and admiration for young Chazelle was evident. He praised the actors and how accurate their pretend drumming looked, noting that it was a pet peeve of his constantly seeing it done poorly. Chazelle talked about his background in music and explained how as every young writer is told one should “write what they know” and his similar, yet slightly less intense relationship with a high school band teacher planted the seed for the film. Chazelle then brought up composer Tim Simonec who was responsible for putting together the music for the project and the Q&A coasted to a close.
All in all it was a pretty great festival experience and Ulrich, aside from dropping the phrase “repping the 415” far too many times (ie; at all) did a very respectable job. The Metallica “Artist in Residence” screenings wrapped up last night as James Hetfield Presented Sergio Leone’s masterpiece “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” because he…oh, forget it.