Sometimes a film's storyline just doesn't do it justice. Inform a flock of multiplex-goers that they're about to watch a movie about a young man training to become a jazz drummer and they'll start snoring loudly in your face.
That is exactly what takes place in Whiplash, yet it's one of the most gripping pieces of cinema I've seen in a while. It's the work of 28-year-old writer/director Damien Chazelle, who's drawn on both personal experience and a deep love of jazz to create a film that feels fresh, vivid and alive.
Miles Teller is Andrew Neiman, a 19-year-old musician who's just been accepted into America's most prestigious music school, the Shaffer Conservatory. Unusually for his generation, Andrew is fascinated by jazz greats such as Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington: a photo of Buddy Rich holds pride of place on his bedroom wall, and he dreams of emulating the great drummer's exploits. His father (Paul Reiser) is unhappy about Andrew's growing obsession, and worries that drumming may not be the most promising career path. But Miles doesn't care, and he ploughs on regardless.
Top on his list of people to impress is Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the school's brilliant but terrifying conductor, whose jazz orchestra has won every award going. Andrew is thrilled when Fletcher selects him as alternate drummer in his orchestra, and even wonders if his bark isn't worse than his bite when the conductor offers him kind words of encouragement before his first practice. But Fletcher has merely lulled the boy into a false sense of security, and lets him have it the first chance he gets.
As Andrew tries to accompany the band on a cover of the classic standard Whiplash, Fletcher stops a number of times and says "not quite my tempo", getting ever more exasperated until he throws a chair at his drummer, reads him the riot act and slaps him in the face during a demonstration of how to keep time. That public humiliation would be the end for most students, but only makes Andrew even more determined to win Fletcher's approval.
He practices night and day, belting out time on his kit until his hands bleed, and even sabotages a promising relationship with a sweet girl called Nicole because he's worried she might be distracting him. All his hard work and privation seems to be paying off when Fletcher fires his regular drummer on the eve of a competition and gives Andrew his spot. But you're never in Fletcher's good books for long, and their cat and mouse relationship will explode into open warfare during Whiplash's unforgettable climax.
At the core of Damien Chazelle's meaty, vibrant and wonderfully fluid picture is the clash between mediocrity and excellence. At one point Fletcher tells Andrew a story about Charlie Parker being transformed from plodding player to mercurial genius after getting a cymbal thrown at his head for not keeping up. "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'," Fletcher says, meaning no one learns anything from pats on the back for doing okay.
There might be something in that theory, but it doesn't excuse or even fully explain Fletcher's endless bullying, and the way he psychologically dismantles the weaker students in his band. In this juiciest of roles, J.K. Simmons is spry, agile, graceful and funny, and stalks the stage like the Nosferatu of the jazz circuit. Indeed Whiplash looks and feels like a horror film, and there are echoes of The Exorcist to the darkened, empty streets Andrew hurries down, and the gloomy emptiness of his life outside music.
Miles Teller's character is both admirable and objectionable, commendably dogged and appallingly self-absorbed. And he comes into his own during Whiplash's unforgettable climax, a long and brilliant scene in which the film's story is resolved by music rather than words.