PHS alumnus releases nationally acclaimed film recounting high school band experiences

photo courtesy: The Prince

photo courtesy: The Prince

Regardless of whether or not Princeton High School Studio Band members go on to play instruments in college or for the rest of their lives, they always carry a little bit of the band experience with them. While many channel the years they spent in band by continuing their study of music, former Studio Band member Damien Chazelle ’03 has found a different medium to express the complicated life of an aspiring musician.

Chazelle produced a short film, Whiplash, which won the Grand Jury and Audience Prizes at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and received positive reviews on several sites such as Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes. Whiplash, named after an old Studio Band chart, was expanded into a full film after receiving positive feedback. The full-length film, rated R, depicts an aspiring young drummer, played by Miles Teller, in a vigorous conservatory. Teller’s character studies under a passionate and violent instructor, played by J.K. Simmons, who will stop at nothing to develop the skills of his students, often resorting to threats and abusive measures.

When Chazelle attended PHS, he was a drummer in Studio Band—the top jazz band at PHS—under Dr. Anthony Biancosino, a band educator in the district for 26 years. Dr. Joseph Downey, the current band director at John Witherspoon Middle School and the brother of Dr. Biancosino, said that while there were competitive elements in the program that Chazelle went through, much of it was added for effect in the movie. The abusive movie character is not meant to be a copy of Biancosino, but rather a display of a violent and aggressive director. “We all loved Dr. B. I’m very careful to stress that … the character of the teacher in my movie is not Dr. Biancosino,” said Chazelle. “He wasn’t throwing chairs.”

photo courtesy: The Prince

photo courtesy: The Prince

Joe Bongiovi, one of the two current band directors, said that the events in Whiplash and the actions of the movie’s band director were designed to play with the emotions of the viewer. “It’s obviously a little dramatized … I had been concerned that people might look at the movie and think that’s what happens here,” he said. “But overall, I thought that if you look at it as … a drama, it’s great, but you have to remember that it’s not real.”

Instead, Whiplash was written to question what occurs when students are pushed too far, according to Chazelle. “In this movie, you see this teacher who totally objectively crosses the line every day of rehearsal; every moment of screen time, he is doing things that are just terrible,” he said. “He justifies it philosophically because he gets results—that certain level of technique and perfection. In his mind, the end justifies the means. [Whiplash] was less about [sending] a message, and more about [questioning] this.”

Although the fear caused by the band director in Whiplash could be viewed as a negative influence, the fear that Chazelle experienced was ultimately the driving force behind his personal successes in music. “I always felt this massive nervousness, [because the drummer is] supporting the whole band. There’s this responsibility that, if you drop the ball, the entire band crumbles, and it’s your fault,” said Chazelle. “Being in Studio Band was the first time in my life that I’d ever been motivated creatively by fear … A lot of movies about the arts don’t focus on how fear can be a motivator, so I wanted to make a movie that captured that fear.”

The emotional effects that Biancosino had on Chazelle are highlighted in Whiplash, but the film also illustrates how the experience was ultimately for the better. “I was terrified of him, as a lot of students were. Rehearsals were super nerve-wracking and really intense, and he would yell and scream and all that stuff,” he said. “But at the same time, he was also ultimately a really loving teacher and really inspired everyone in the band. It wound up being this very positive experience.”

In addition, Chazelle aimed to show how his and others’ love of jazz was kindled by their instructors. “I know that I only became a good drummer because of that pressure, those nerves, that fear of screwing up, that fear of failure, and the desire to succeed in that climate,” he said.

For many band members both in the film and in the Studio Band of Chazelle’s time, that fear was partly rooted in the risk of demotion. “Try not doing your job on second alto in Studio Band, and see how long you last on that chair,” said Downey, in reference to the Studio Band under Dr. Biancosino. “It is competitive by the nature of the program.”

This was more prevalent in the past because the Studio Band class consisted of a core group of students and alternates that did not play as much in class or at concerts. Through this system, there was always a possibility that students could be relegated to the alternate status if they failed to perform.

However, this system benefitted some, as Chazelle said that he had started out with very little knowledge of jazz but rose to the higher level bands as he became more experienced. “I remember [Dr. Biancosino] came in and asked me to play a double-time swing. I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I totally screwed up. Embarrassed by that, I practiced … on my own,” he said. “[He] came into Nassau Band one day and put me into the Studio Band … For the rest of high school, I was in Studio Band. [I] started off as the alternate drummer, turning pages and playing auxiliary percussion, and then slowly worked my way up to core.”

photo courtesy: The Prince

photo courtesy: The Prince

Today, there is a different system in place for the top musicians, one divided into two bands. “After my first year here, we split Studio Band into two bands—there was Studio Band, and we created Jazz Ensemble,” said Bongiovi. “Educationally, my philosophy on that was that you had 30 kids actually playing and getting the experience, while 30 kids were just watching and not getting playing experience … The only way to get better was to actually get to play.”

This may have helped to alleviate some of the tensions caused by having 30 kids constantly vying for a chance to get playing time, as both of the top two bands travel and play in competitions and concerts. In addition, students audition and are accepted into the bands on a yearly basis, allowing for competition without the fear that mistakes could result in immediate demotion.

As the Studio Band portrayed in the film is different from the current band, the movie does not quite realistically portray the dynamic that students feel. “[Whiplash] definitely shows [the band] as less of a tight-knit group that we see today … Everybody in the band knows each other really well,” said Aditya Udupa ’18. “The movie has a very competitive vibe; it was much more rigorous.”

Band students at PHS have already seen the movie—many because of recommendations from the band directors. “Mr. Bongiovi introduced us to the movie via the trailers that came out after it won the Sundance [Film Festival Award] and became kind of a feature film,” said Rylan Gupta ’17, a trombonist in Studio Band. “There are definitely some Studio Band elements in there.”

For Gupta, it is also important to draw attention to the work and time that young jazz performers spend on their art. “[Whiplash shows] how the passions of band are often understated and how passion can really drive people to push [themselves],” he said.

This was one of Chazelle’s key goals when creating the film. “I remember coming up with the idea for Whiplash, probably eight or ten years after graduating from high school,” he said. “[I was] just remembering how scared I felt, especially in those early years, in Studio Band rehearsal, and how intense something as seemingly innocuous as music seemed.”

Nonetheless, the movie does highlight a theme central to band at PHS both in Chazelle’s years and today: nothing is more important than the music. “[In Whiplash,] the basic elements are there,” said Downey. “Studio Band is here for music.”

photo courtesy: The Prince

photo courtesy: The Prince


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