A love poem to big band jazz and the dubious pleasures of sadistic mentoring, “Whiplash” is a movie version of a steel cage death match, in which a talented drummer and near-psychotic teacher face off against each other. Featuring a spectacular, and very scary, performance by veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, writer-director Damien Chazelle’s film is a brutally mesmerizing tale of ambition, but tends to run off the tracks a bit in its final third.
Miles Teller (excellent) stars as Andrew Neyman, a first-year student at a New York conservatory obviously modeled after Juilliard. He’s a devotee of the great jazz drummer Buddy Rich, and has ambitions to be just as skilled and famous. Because of this, he soon attracts the attention of Terence Fletcher (Simmons), an instructor whose picture is in the dictionary next to the word “martinet.”
Fletcher likes to use a carrot-and-stick approach with his students. A little bit of carrot and lots and lots of stick. He curses at them, throws things, insults their sexuality and ethnicity, even hits them on occasion. Fletcher rationalizes this behavior by stating that those who aspire to greatness will toughen up, move past his abuse and exceed expectations. But you have to wonder what kind of person would put up with this kind of mistreatment, and why Andrew is one of them.
Actually, you don’t have to wonder about Andrew, whose room is filled with Buddy Rich CDs, pictures and books, and who is desperate to become the drummer in Fletcher’s top-rated student jazz orchestra. He’ll put up with the sadistic treatment, because he believes he’s the best – and he is.
That’s pretty much the whole film, which is a can’t-take-your-eyes-away-from-it series of confrontations between Andrew and Terence, backed by bits of rehearsal footage featuring classic jazz numbers like the Duke Ellingon/Juan Tizol “Caravan.” There is a romance of sorts between Andrew and cute Fordham student Nicole (Melissa Benoist), interspersed with a few scenes involving supportive pop Paul Reiser, but they are secondary to the main story.
“Whiplash” works beautifully for the most part, and as a fan of both Buddy Rich and big band jazz, I have to say I loved seeing youngsters enjoying the genre as a classical tradition and playing it with passion and conviction. But about 30 minutes before the film ends, there is a plot twist (no spoilers) that comes out of nowhere, and just doesn’t ring true. That, and a final “this would never, ever happen in real life” scene set in Carnegie Hall at the end of the film tends to soften its impact.
Yet the whole “dare to be great” aspect of the story rings true. And even if it is sometimes hard to believe that Fletcher can get away with what he does for so long without getting fired, there is little question that you will walk away from this film talking about J.K. Simmons’ performance. It is as Oscar-worthy as anything you’ll see all year.