There have been films that depicted the intensely competitive atmosphere of music and dance academies before, and movies that portrayed teachers at them as hard taskmasters who drove students to their limits. But none have done so with quite the intensity of “Whiplash,” Damien Chazelle’s propulsive study of the brutal relationship between Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a teen who pushes himself mercilessly to become a great jazz drummer, and Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the ultra-intimidating conductor of the conservatory jazz band whose instructional technique consists primarily of hurling a barrage of insult and abuse at his talented but terrified players.
There really isn’t much more to Chazelle’s script than that. To be sure, he adds some grace touches—the relationship between Andrew and his supportive but recessive father (Paul Reiser); a far frostier one with his uncle (Chris Mulkey) and two cousins, who are dismissive of his passion; and most importantly, a halting romance he starts with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a pretty concession-counter attendant at the movie theatre he and his dad go to—but breaks off when he thinks it might interfere with his drumming career. And there are rivalries with other drummers jockeying for “first chair” status in the band—pretty boy Ryan (Austin Stowell) and uptight Carl (Nate Lang).
But it’s the on-again, off-again pal-and-tormentor role Fletcher plays with Andrew that’s the focus of the film, and it certainly moves into melodramatic territory, particularly in the last act, when the kid is so anxious to make it to an important competition that he gets into a car crash en route and arrives bloody but determined to play and then, after being instrumental in getting Fletcher fired, agrees to join Fletcher’s semi-pro band for a concert, only to face his former teacher’s sabotage. (Naturally there’s room for a triumphant resolution anyway, though frankly it’s one that strains credulity.)
But while one might groan over the implausibility of these late-inning twists, the fact is that even they work, thanks to the commitment of Teller and Simmons. The former, who was overpraised for “The Spectacular Now,” should convince even the skeptics this time around: the intensity that he invests Neyman with is palpable, and he manages to make the boy sympathetic, even if you consider his ambition a trifle ridiculous. But even he is overshadowed by Simmons, a journeyman actor who huffed and puffed his way through the role of J. Jonah Jameson in the Sam Raimi “Spider-Man” movies, among other supporting turns, and had recurring parts in such TV series as “Law & Order” and “The Closer.” He gets a lead here, and grabs the opportunity for all it’s worth. In his hands Fletcher is a sadistic, steely-eyed thug with a podium, as adept at slinging insidiously cutting remarks as he is running his fingers across a keyboard. Fletcher is a monster, but as awful as his actions are, they’re fueled by a real desire to force the best from youngsters he believes to be capable of greatness (a attitude beautifully encapsulated in his observation that there are no worse words in the English language than “Good job”); and Simmons conveys both the character’s cruelty and the passion that drives it. It’s a showy performance, but in this case the showiness is perfectly appropriate.
Nobody else in the cast can compete with these two, and frankly no one else tries very hard to do so. Reiser does his humble, laid-back shtick effortlessly, and Benoist is attractive and amiable, but little more. Of the others Lang makes the strongest impression as a drummer who will obviously never make the grade in Fletcher’s eyes, but whom the teacher will tolerate as long as no better player comes along—and knows it. On the technical side, Sharone Meir’s cinematography captures the action from every angle, using close-ups to powerful effect (especially in sequences in which Andrew drips sweat and blood trying to meet Fletcher’s—and his own—demands), and Tom Cross’ editing abets the hard-driving tempo Chazelle sets.
Ultimately, however, for all the virtuoso cutting and camerawork, “Whiplash” matters not so much for the question it raises about whether a dream is worth the sacrifices it entails, or the visuals it adopts to ask it. Its strength lies in the teaming of Teller and Simmons, who play their scenes together like an inspired jazz duet, tossing the themes back and forth between them with an insouciance that doesn’t entirely mask a determination to outdo the other. “Whiplash” is essentially an acting contest, and happily it winds up as pretty much a draw.