A music professor bullies a young drummer to greatness in Whiplash
ACID JAZZ PROFESSOR: Drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) practices until he's perfect under the harsh tutelage of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) at a Juilliard-like arts school.

As the old expression goes, "You can sure tell what it's been next to in the refrigerator." That's true about Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, mostly a good-looking reprise of the opening 20 minutes of Full Metal Jacket.

The ordeal of the drummer Andrew (Miles Teller) is similar to the anguish of Geoffrey Rush's music student in Shine as he was tortured through Rachmaninoff. In one shot, Martin Scorsese will speculate on the life of inanimate objects, like the full-screen smoldering cigarette butt in New York Stories. In Whiplash, a lid of a soft drink cup gets its own camera set up, in a percussive scene of a movie theater soda being made. The bloody digits are like Black Swan's bloody toes. The unused business cut from Raging Bull of DeNiro dumping a pitcher of ice over his crotch returns: here, the crushed ice turns to a raspberry slushy when the drummer protagonist dunks his bleeding hand into it.

Whiplash is, at first, very forceful. Practicing at night in a thinly veiled version of Juilliard, Andrew is recruited by a dynamically sinister school orchestra leader, Fletcher (J. K. Simmons). He's posed like a black-clad super villain, who doesn't feel as if he has to introduce himself. Fletcher seems completely nocturnal—more than this, he seems like the only teacher in the entire school. Over the months, Andrew's human qualities are stripped away through the savagery of this professor.

Simmons is a versatile utility actor with the Coen Brothers, a dejected shrugger, a wretch caught in middle-manager rage. The few who saw The Music Never Stopped also saw what a capacity Simmons has for paternal compassion. His part in Whiplash is much simpler: he's a hard-on, complete with scribbly little veins. Fletcher's toxic simplicity goes complex in one quiet moment, right before Whiplash's series of endings. Over a quiet drink at a nightclub we see the serene conviction underneath Fletcher's insane horror of compromise. He's more than just a pride-stung jazzman; he's a mirror of the obsessions of a Stalin or a Hitler. Here, the movie is more than what it eventually becomes. What it becomes is a film that says the vicious teachers are the best.

In the performance scenes, Whiplash has kinetic excitement—the instruments are studied and swooped over by the camera. The music is so complex you don't mind hearing it more than once during the movie. Miles Teller does things that haven't been seen since John Cusack was young, in the flickering alternation of barbed and vulnerable sides. There's nothing tiresomely callow about that flushed face with its multiple brambly scars. It's easy to laugh with Andrew, when he passes on the bullying he's received—when he feels that jazz musicians are being disrespected. And you see the reason for his drive. Andrew is the son of a meek father (Paul Reiser)—the kind of person who apologizes when you bump into him. (Oddly, Andrew never seems to have picked up an opinion of brutal teachers from his father.)

Director Chazelle tries to make this unlikely tale plausible with photos of Buddy Rich on the walls, to commemorate a famous secret tape of the jazz drummer unleashing a mighty temper tantrum against his band. You have to take Whiplash's tunnel vision for what it's worth—the idea that there's only one sort of perfection, only one school worth attending…worse, that there might be some wisdom in using Marine drill-instructor tactics in the arts. Fletcher's insults are so harshly sexual they get ridiculous. When the script gets that lowdown, you wonder who they were trying to fool by using a female love interest (Melissa Benoist).

Topping crescendo with crescendo, Whiplash defies the name of its production company, Bold Films. The flashiest actor dictated the terms. This monomania is getting Simmons praise, in the same way that Ben Kingsley got praise for the repetitious, bald-headed hard-on he played in Sexy Beast. This kind of acting is to acting what a drum solo is to music.


106 MIN., R

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