Whiplash opens on a black screen, with a drumroll. There’s really no better way it could have commenced: The steady, incessant crack of the snare, increasing in velocity until it sounds like a goddamn hurricane, is the only proper introduction to such a feverishly intense film, and to its 19-year-old protagonist, Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller). An aspiring jazz drummer taking classes at a prestigious, fictitious music conservatory in New York City, Andrew yearns to be legendary—the heir apparent to Buddy Rich, whose work he religiously studies and whose face he plasters across the walls of his dormitory. And so when a revered instructor, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), handpicks him for the school’s big-band jazz ensemble, it seems like a dream come true. Little does Andrew know, however, that he’s just fallen under the tutelage of a notorious perfectionist, a man whose reputation scarcely does justice to his extreme motivational tactics.
Fletcher, in other words, is not the usual stand-and-deliver mentor, and Whiplash spends most of its fleet, exhilarating runtime obliterating every sentimental cliché of the inspirational-teacher genre. More Full Metal Jacket than Dead Poet’s Society, the film is an epic battle of wills between two fanatical artists, one doing everything in his power to painfully make a master out of the other. The deserved winner of this year’s audience award and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, it’s also the rare music movie to focus not on the liberating joys of playing, but on the sheer, punishing hardship of the craft—the blood, sweat, tears, and insane discipline required of those looking to make it in this fiercely competitive field. Jazz is not “fun” for the film’s characters; it’s a crucible.
As in his Cassavetes-indebted debut, Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench, writer-director Damien Chazelle builds his movie around music rehearsals. But that film was loose and affectionate, a bohemian celebration; this new one is tight and mean and meticulous, as high-strung as a violin string. The practice scenes here—gauntlets of negative reinforcement, tests of patience and fortitude—privilege grueling repetition over joyous improvisation. As Andrew quickly discovers, on his nightmarish first day with the group, Fletcher runs his band like a fight club. “Not quite my tempo,” he warns, menace on his breath, after silencing Andrew with the clench of a fist. Soon the instructor is hurling insults (and metal chairs), pitting his young protégés against each other, and playing cruel mind games to psyche up the promising pupils and weed out the weak ones. Will Andrew meet his sky-high standards or will he crack under the pressure?
With surgical precision, Chazelle syncs his editing rhythms to the quickened pulse of his hero. Anxiety is the metronome of the movie; Grand Piano, the stage-fright thriller the filmmaker wrote before Whiplash, looks now like a dry run to this feature-length panic attack. Chazelle fetishizes process, getting his camera in close on shiny instruments and the non-professional actors playing them. (Most of the students in Fletcher’s class are actual musicians, and their stress looks awfully authentic.) In an early scene, Andrew goes to the local arthouse movie theater with his father (Paul Reiser, whose warmth and understanding is a nice counterbalance to Simmons’ hair-trigger volatility). The film they watch: Jules Dassin’s classic heist thriller Rififi. It’s an apt choice, as Chazelle shares Dassin’s procedural fascination with men at work, those who demonstrate their finesse and expertise under duress. And he makes facing a packed house at Carnegie Hall look as daunting as cracking a safe.
In what will hopefully be a star-making performance, Teller colors his usual boyish charisma, showcased in last summer’s YA charmer The Spectacular Now, with a dark shade of obsession. Spending endless hours behind his kit, Andrew drums until his hands bleed, and Teller—panting, grimacing, pushing past the agony—makes the viewer feel his pain. Somehow, and impressively, the young star holds his own against Simmons, who hasn’t been this intimidating—this magnetically loathsome—since his days on Oz. The paternal quality Simmons brought to films like Juno functions here like a booby trap: Fletcher tears down Andrew’s defenses with fleeting moments of fatherly encouragement, only to use the personal information he pries from the teen against him. Is this villain a brilliant teacher, doing what it takes to mold potential into greatness? Or is he a sadist who uses his position of power to tear down the players he deems unworthy of their instruments? Whiplash spins thrillingly around that question, shattering the expectations of its audience.
There’s also a romance, Andrew’s tentative courtship of the popcorn peddler (Melissa Benoist) he works up the nerve to ask out. This subplot feels like a distraction, but that’s by design: For Andrew, happiness and achievement may be mutually exclusive; to reach his potential, to make it into the pantheon, he has strip his life down to nothing but effort and rhythm. The film’s position toward that attitude is fascinatingly ambivalent, leaning towards sympathetic. Chazelle recognizes that Fletcher’s approach is abusive and excessive, but he also flirts with concluding that the ends justify the means. Certainly, that troubling philosophy worms its way into the spectacular final minutes, when Whiplash begins to look like a bona fide creation myth—one designed, in its crowd-pleading virtuosity, to blow the minds of John Bonham fans everywhere. The sense of release is cathartic, freeing, earned. We’re witnessing a breakthrough—for the man behind the kit, yes, but also for the one behind the camera.