When ambitious young musician Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) strives to be a Buddy Rich class drummer, he nearly dies trying in a charged battle of wills with his thorny professor Terence Fletcher (J. K. Simmons). The buzzy Sundance hit that won both the Audience and Grand Jury Prize vibrates with life lived at fever pitch.
Speaking of pitch, while Whiplash takes its title from Hank Levy’s jazz standard, the rousing drama has the construction of a sports movie. The conflict between talented newbie Neyman and authoritarian Fletcher (J. K. Simmons) at a prestigious Manhattan music school mimics the locker room. Think of Neyman as the ace college pitcher that surrenders everything to go pro – and Fletcher as the crusty tough-love coach that throws every curve to break the rookie before he gets to the show.
Whiplash makes this point by opening with Neyman practicing on his drums, awash in sweat, before being interrupted – and dissed – by the muscular Fletcher. By the movie’s end, there will be buckets more sweat dripping off the cymbals and blood, too, lots of blood.
By singling out this drummer, talented writer-director Damien Chazelle shows the performer’s athleticism, the way that being a great musician requires integrating so many skills – physical, artistic and psychological. Chazelle pays homage to the hard work of the aspiring musician in a society that is increasingly disdainful of that profession.
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Teller — who broke out as a charming yet directionless high-schooler in last year’s indie drama The Spectacular Now — plays the fresh-faced Andrew with quiet ferocity and brutal physicality: His scenes on the drums find him beating not only the skins, but also his own body, leaving a trail of sweat and blood wherever he goes. It’s a performance you can’t get out of your head.
But it’s Andrew’s antagonist that has the stand-out role, freed of carrying the plot. Simmons, a familiar face (TV’s Law & Order, Spider-Man) if not a familiar name, is ferocious in the supporting role that will bring him an Oscar nomination. His dedicated and abusive music prof hurls racial and sexual slurs, and even chairs, to rip under the skin of his disciples. He’s not a character that fits in the politically-correct present, but the question the movie raises is whether the ends justify the means. Can his raging behavior turn raw talent into genius?
Whiplash has its flaws: the family and romantic subplots are sketchy, with Paul Reiser playing Andrew’s loving father, and Glee’s Melissa Benoist as his blue-eyed girlfriend. Both characters hover out of focus at the edge of the gripping central duel: the fraught battle to achieve greatness that defines both teacher and disciple, to make music together that’s not just beautiful but immortal, like that of Buddy Rich or Charlie Parker.
Whiplash expands on November 14th.