Whiplash is musical drama with a Hitchcock heart, a minor-key thriller set to a double time swing beat. That's one jazz rhythm Andrew Neyman hasn't mastered on the drums, and his future, perhaps his sanity, depends upon it.
Andrew is a wallflower freshman at fictitious Shaffer Conservatory of Music, under the tutelage of Terrence Fletcher, a jazz perfectionist in the cruelest ways. Whenever Fletcher acts supportive is the cue for Andrew to steel himself or duck. Andrew wants to be the next Buddy Rich. Fletcher will find out how badly.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle went through an experience like that, and you see what he's doing today.
Yet with Whiplash he makes a movie like a musician. A piano has 88 keys but countless songs are created with only those notes, varying and combining notes in different ways. Chazelle pulls together disparate material we know — Fame, The Paper Chase, even Full Metal Jacket — and offers a fresh take on the familiar, rousing as Rocky was in its time.
Much of the credit goes to the fine, ferocious pairing of former Lecanto resident Miles Teller as Andrew, and J.K. Simmons as Fletcher, a role he originated in Chazelle's 2013 short film inspiring this one.
The key to this battle of wills is that neither adversary is particularly appealing. Certainly not Fletcher, whose abusive nature in class — verbally and physically — is relentless. Simmons is a perfect physical representation of Fletcher's ramrod obstinance: bald and perpetually dressed in black tee and jeans, nothing that wastes the time it takes for perfection, not haircuts or fashion choices.
At the risk of hyperbole, I'll say that Simmons' intensity, his raging command and sheer fearsomeness reminds me of nothing less than George C. Scott in Patton. He's that frightening, yet after initial repulsion we empathize with why. One of Whiplash's chilling moments is Fletcher inviting an alumnus' daughter to take his class someday, that in context feels like a moment from Fritz Lang's M.
Simmons is countered and matched by the Cusackian brusqueness of Teller, who is among the most interesting young actors today regardless of where he hails from. Andrew's drive to be someday remembered as a jazz drummer is easy for an audience to get behind until Teller exposes the insecure self-centering behind it.
There's a love interest in Nicole (Melissa Benoist) intruding just enough to prove Andrew's heartless potential. His caring, widowed father (Paul Reiser) is there for good advice to be ignored, and witness his son's evolution into something like the monster Fletcher. Teller plays notes all over the emotional chart, dovetailing into a divine riff on ambition. And he does nearly all of Andrew's drumming, aggressively and impressively so.
Sharone Meir's camera circles these fighters like a referee doing nothing about the low blows. Art can be vicious in Whiplash, while the beauty of its creation is revealed through glimpses of shuffled sheet music, licked reeds and evacuated spit valves.
And of course the music, curling into flights of cool jazz fancy until Fletcher hears a false note, something Chazelle's movie knows nothing about. Whiplash's climax is a drum solo, often the dullest part of concerts but here one of 2014's most exciting movie sequences, in one of the year's best films.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.