Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) lives to play jazz drums, and at 19, he's the youngest drummer in the vaunted "Studio Band" at New York City's Juilliard-like Shaffer Conservatory of Music. Little problem: the bandleader, 50-something teacher Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), runs the outfit like a sadistic Master Sergeant's boot camp. When Andrew ever-so-slightly screws up in a rehearsal of Hank Levy's "Whiplash," a very complex composition with a 7/4 beat, Fletcher tosses a chair at him. He makes castrating jokes about Andrew's father and mother. He slaps the boy, hard. Andrew wants to be "one of the greats," and he might mature from a promising musician into an exceptional one — if he can just survive Fletcher's tough love.
A hit at Sundance and the Toronto Film Festival, where it was nicknamed Full Metal Drum Kit, Damien Chazelle's Whiplash adds welcome flavor to the fall movie season, like Raisinettes sprinkled on a tub of popcorn. Directing with a cool, steady hand that renounces shaky-cam the way Fletcher would denounce rock 'n roll, and getting strong performances from his two leads, Chazelle provides a potent metaphor for artistic ambition as both a religion and an addiction. You go through Hell to reach your goal, and maybe Hell was the best, most intense part of the process.
Chazelle, a 28-year-old Harvard grad, has suffused most of his films with music. (His script for the horror movie The Last Exorcism Part II doesn't fit, so we're ignoring it.) In his 2009 debut feature, Guy and Madeleine on a Park, characters burst into song — Chazelle also wrote the songs’ lyrics — as if in a Vincente Minnelli MGM musical or, given the black-and-white, spontaneous ambiance, Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave lark A Woman Is a Woman. Chazelle also wrote the screenplay for Eugenio Mora’s 2013 Grand Piano, a thriller about a classical pianist who, on the night of his comeback concert, finds in his sheet music the note, “Play one wrong note and you die.”
Fletcher’s instructional style carries that kind of threat: that Andrew must play through the pain — that his life almost literally depends on his keeping the beat. We never learn why these students in the improv art of jazz have to play the exact charts of pieces at least 75 years old: Juan Tizol’s “Caravan” and Ray Noble’s “Cherokee.” (It's as if an art teacher at the turn of the 20th century had told one brilliant student, "Hey, Picasso, stop painting those ladies as cubes!") But we do know that Fletcher thinks the way to goad his pupils to their full potential is to demand more of them than they think they have to offer, and to refuse to accept less than what he thinks is their best. As he says, "There are no two words more harmful than 'good job.'"
He also enjoys citing a famous anecdote in which Count Basie drummer Jo Jones, in a 1930s gig with the raw teenager Charlie Parker, threw a cymbal at Parker when he went off-tempo. (Clint Eastwood replayed the incident in his 1988 bio-pic Bird.) But Fletcher apparently believes the drummers, not the alto sax players, should get the abuse. Except for one early scene, he doesn’t ritually humiliate the other members of the Studio Band. In the movie's scheme, they are mere sidemen to the central conflict: their leader’s mission to haze his drummers toward greatness or madness. In Andrew’s first session with the Studio Band, Fletcher keeps questioning the tyro’s tempo: “Were you rushing or were you dragging?” It’s mental and physical torture of the kind applied by Laurence Olivier as the Nazi dentist in Marathon Man when he asks Dustin Hoffman, “Is it safe?”
The difference is that Andrew wants to practice and play till his hands bleed; that's a visual badge of devotion to his craft that may become his art. (It also suggests a reason for the reputations of jazz and rock drummers as junkies or crazies.) Like a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome, Andrew bonds with his captor, mimicking Fletcher's mode of personal rancor with his sometime girlfriend Nicole (Melissa Benoist). And given that his father Jim (Paul Reiser) submerged his failure as a writer by becoming a high school English teacher, Andrew may also be fishing for a more authoritative father figure. Fletcher mocks Jim's career defeat — those who can't, teach — yet, a later scene at a jazz club, where Fletcher plays solo piano, shows why he's a teacher: He's not that good at what he'd love to be great at.
Conventional at its core, Whiplash has a lot in common with movies made from YA novels — The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner — that set daunting rites of passage for its protagonist to overcome. (In Divergent, Teller played Shailene Woodley's hazer: bigger, stronger and, eventually, loser.) It's also a backstage musical in which the young protagonist rebels against a brutal taskmaster — like the seminal Broadway show Gypsy, except that, this time, the one in authority is not the heroine's mother but the hero's college teacher. And like Gypsy Rose Lee, who blooms as a stripper instead of a chorus girl, Andrew hopes to prove that Fletcher is wrong, that you learn the system to beat the system, in a climactic battle of wills played out on stage at Lincoln Center.
To accept Whiplash as a totally successful film rather than a work of a promising young artist, audiences must indulge Chazelle’s piling on of coincidences — at crucial moments Andrew loses his rival’s playbook (accidentally on purpose?), then his drumsticks — and the needless melodrama of a car crash. They must also allow that a conductor would sabotage an important concert by humiliating his drummer off the stage, and risk presenting the rest of his jazz set with no percussion. There are times when the only justification for certain scenes is the familiar one: because it's a movie. For Andrew to grab his dream by the cojones, he must fly over the abyss of implausibility. That's what happens in dreams, and in movies with a more secure hold on tone and performance than on plot logic.
To raise money for the project, Chazelle first made Whiplash as a short film, with J.K. Simmons in the teacher's role and Johnny Simmons (no relation) as the drummer. For the feature-length version, Chazelle replaced the younger Simmons with Teller. (Movie casting can be every bit as humiliating as band practice.) The two stars truly deliver. Teller, 27, has been playing drums since he was 15; he did most of the riff work, and that blood on the drum skin is his. He has just the right mix of youth and obsession to stand up to Simmons's musical martinet.
Of this longtime character actor, people often say, "He's always good." They're right. At 59, well into a protean career, he gets his breakthrough shot, as Richard Jenkins did in the 2007 The Visitor. Simmons could parlay the role, Jenkins-style, to an Oscar nomination. He would deserve it, because with little personal backstory he makes Fletcher a figure of frightening solidity. Viewers will march to his beat, in this intimate, intimidating film, because he's so much damn fun to watch. He's the whip of Whiplash.