Teller, Simmons Sparkle In Sensational "Whiplash"

By the time the curtain falls on “Whiplash,” writer-director Damien Chazelle has worked a deceptively simple premise into a frenzy, parlaying his real-life experience as a college-aged jazz drummer into one of the year’s premier dramas. The picture’s gripping, relatable conflict allows the filmmaker to wring contradictory emotions from his characters and audience both, delivering it in a package as yet unseen – and perhaps a new genre unto itself – the music-thriller. With only words and music for weapons – and the occasional flying chair – Chazelle has turned an overwrought, often tasteless musical cliche – the drum solo – into something ferocious and alive.

Miles Teller (“The Spectacular Now”) stars as 19 year-old drumming prodigy Andrew Neyman. Newly enrolled at a prestigious music conservatory, Andrew possesses the kind of raw potential it takes to make a drumming great – like those immortalized in the posters he hangs in his apartment – talent that happens to cohabitate with vast pockets of hot air. Andrew approaches the jazz scene like an overconfident sixth-grader on the first day of school, new kicks with an attitude to match, entirely unaware that he’s about to have his teeth kicked in.

Enter a bald, middle-aged instructor named Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, “Spider-Man”) who takes immediate interest in Andrew. Within seconds of meeting the teacher launches into a razor-sharp critique of Andrew’s skills, which the student shrugs off as first-day hazing. Soon after, Andrew jumps at the chance to join one of Fletcher’s ensembles – all among the best in the nation – as an understudy, but quickly discovers that their first encounter was child’s play. Verbal abuse is part of the instructor’s modus operandi, frequently escalating into stinging personal barbs and one-sided shouting matches.

Simmons, a reliably great performer, revels in his shot at co-lead, blowing doors off in scene after scene. The character is a perfect playground for the actor’s stormy screen personality – a teacher as respected as Richard Dreyfuss’ Mr. Holland in “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” but with a jagged sociopathic edge and a mean temper to match. It’s hard to tell when Fletcher is actually displeased with his students or when he’s merely trying to provoke, but such is the brilliance in Simmons’ loud but by no means over the top performance. Few actors could so clearly relay the film’s main query – why does getting the best from someone all too often require the worst in another?

That Andrew credibly keeps his cool as long as he does is a credit to Teller’s innate screen presence – he emanates cocky confidence at every turn, often ignoring real world concerns in the process. The character literally bleeds on his kit several times over the course of the film, with Chazelle smartly allowing the camera to linger. The sight of blood on a musical instrument is one of great cognitive dissonance, pumping up the film’s sense of urgency and placing drumming in an all-new light – one where the stakes seem life and death.

Filmmakers who struggle with endings would be wise to take a page from Chazelle’s playbook here. He meticulously brings his pressure cooker narrative to its boiling point and pulls back, only to push it even further towards the brink. The film’s final twenty minutes are all thrilling crescendo, not quite resolving but leaving us wholly satisfied, all the same. The entire film is impossibly tied up in a two-second glance between actors before smashing to black with the might of a crash cymbal.

“Whiplash” manages to toe the line between the conventional (half-cocked love story between Andrew and Nicole, a movie theater concession worker) and the uncommon (just about everything else) so well that Chazelle might be a fit for any genre he chooses to play in. That long time TV star Paul Reiser arbitrarily pops up as Andrew’s father ends up a mere footnote on the film’s noteworthiness. “Whiplash” is a must for fans of all involved and anyone who’s ever had a blustery teacher-student connection. Seemingly out of nowhere, Damien Chazelle has made a film that’s both as accessible as a pop-radio beat and as dynamic as a Buddy Rich solo. Highly recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: October 10, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Damien Chazelle
Screenwriter: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
MPAA Rating: R (for strong language including some sexual references)