By Ed Symkus
More Content Now
Ask anyone in the performing arts which area of it is the most cutthroat, which is the hardest to “make it” in. Fights would break out: an actor would say it’s acting, a musician would insist it’s music, a professional wrestler — well, the wrestler would win the fight, but most people would agree that very few have big success in showbiz.
In “Whiplash,” the protagonist, a college student and drumming prodigy named Andrew (Miles Teller), has convinced himself that not only will he make a living as a jazz drummer, he’s going to be, as he puts it, “one of the greats.” That’s quite a lofty goal, especially when you’ve got a photo of the great Buddy Rich hanging by your drum kit in your practice area.
Andrew is one of many students at an elite music academy, all with a similar goal. The film, by relative newcomer writer-director Damien Chazelle, opens with Andrew, alone in a studio, playing that drum kit, slowly at first but steadily growing faster and faster, like a locomotive starting off and ending up throttling down the track.
Andrew doesn’t realize it, but he’s noticed by a mysterious man dressed in black, who is eventually revealed to be a conservatory teacher named Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). He’s a man who has no patience or tact when it comes to dealing with his students, a disciplined man of habit who demands perfection and respect and a serious approach to what he considers professionalism.
Standing, sometimes crouching like an animal ready to pounce on its prey, in front of a group of players, he’ll snarl, “Do not be out of time in this ensemble!” And those students will obey and play in time. Or one of them might make a mistake, be found out, and end up cowering. Whatever the case, they sure better not screw up the complicated big band jazz song that serves as the film’s title, a favorite of Fletcher’s.
So here’s young Andrew, no doubt talented and filled with ambition, but at the same time, suffering from a case of low self-esteem when he discovers that 1. pretty much everyone else at the school is also pretty darn good on their instruments, and 2. he has no idea how to deal with this unpredictable teacher who likes nothing more than to push other people’s buttons. In Fletcher’s mind, he’s doing it for their own good. In their minds, this guy’s a monster. So there’s the big question: Is he helping or hindering his charges?
The crackling script, filled with drum fills and other assorted percussiveness, pits student and teacher against each other in a test of wills. Practically from the moment they meet, the film is about the shy, eager student versus the cold-hearted bastard of a teacher. Scenes are regularly staged of them going toe-to-toe in verbal disagreements, and some of it even gets briefly but alarmingly physical.
But audiences will get a lot more than just that central story. There’s also a generous amount of really exciting and well-played jazz coming out of rehearsals and the competitions those rehearsals lead up to, that Fletcher is convinced will make or break his reputation as what he believes is a great teacher.
Audiences will also get a couple of superb acting performances. Here’s hoping that Teller will, in the future, just walk away from rubbish like “Divergent,” where he’s allowed only to be a piece of wallpaper. “Whiplash” gives him the opportunity to show what’s percolating in the sometimes-confused mind of his character, and it allows him to let the world know that he’s a hell of a drummer. (No stand-ins here; this is Teller banging away.)
But despite what Teller does, any time Simmons hits the screen, every frame of the scene belongs to him. He showed incredible promise many years back when he menacingly chewed the curtains as a vicious convict in the TV series “Oz,” and he was equal parts charming and heartwarming as the father in “Juno.” But this time out, he explodes with intensity and rage. He definitely gives us an acting highlight of the year. Though there are a few too many side plots and coincidental oddball twists that viewers will have to find their way around, it’s by far Simmons’ best performance to date, and the main reason to see the film.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser
Movie review: Whiplash’ hits high notes
By Ed Symkus