By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A drum roll, please!
It’s deserved in this case because Whiplash offers two of the year’s best performances: one by a young actor on his way to being a star, the other by a character actor whose face is familiar and whose name is about to be.
The former is Miles Teller, the latter JK Simmons.
Teller you may know from Divergent or The Spectacular Now or Rabbit Hole. Simmons you may recognize from Juno or the original Spider-Man trilogy or, most likely, the ubiquitous Farmers Insurance television commercials.
Both are superlative in Whiplash and their wry, crispy scenes together absolutely snap, crackle, and pop.
Teller is 19-year-old Andrew Neyman, a talented young drummer, a prodigy idolizing Buddy Rich and dreaming of similar stardom, who has enrolled in the nation’s top (fictional) music conservatory, the Schaffer Academy in Manhattan.
Simmons is the fearsome, bullying taskmaster Terence Fletcher, the impossible-to-please, drill sergeant-like conductor of the school’s competitive jazz band, for which he recruits Andrew as soon as he meets him and then immediately begins applying his ethically questionable teaching techniques and strategies.
So Andrew’s drums can be thin-skinned, but he better not be. And his blood, sweat, and tears will be more than metaphorical on this journey.
Both Andrew and Fletcher pursue excellence and they’re both obsessive perfectionists, but to describe Fletcher that way, while it may be necessary, is certainly not sufficient.
He also seems at times to be a mercilessly abusive, sadistic, menacing madman.
But -– and this is the tricky part –- he really does want, and expect, Andrew to develop into a music great, and he’ll accept nothing less than that outcome, whatever it takes, to drum it into end-justifies-the-means existence.
In other words, Andrew is the tormented artist and Fletcher is his tormentor, and apparently you can’t have one without the other.
As for Andrew, he has no friends, he sees his failed-writer-turned-teacher father (played by Paul Reiser) as the opposite of a role model for him, and he even breaks up with his new girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) because she might distract him from his demanding quest.
There are lots of cymbals in Whiplash, working as symbols. It’s the electrifying scenes that Teller and Simmons share that lift the audience out of their seats and slam them back into place.
This is the second feature by writer-director Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), and it’s a feature film that was originally a 2013 short (also featuring Simmons). But it has been expanded smartly.
What Chazelle (inspired by his experience as a high school drummer) has concocted is an intense, mesmerizing drama that sometimes seems like an action flick in which the action is drumming. And those “action” sequences are superbly edited by Tom Cross to hypnotize viewers whether they are jazz aficionados or not.
It’s obvious that Teller is actually playing the drums (and he did have a bit of experience as a high school garage band drummer) while skillfully underplaying his role. His appropriately subdued turn leaves the histrionics to Simmons (who did actually study conducting in music school), and he does no less than knock it out of the park.
Funny and disturbing and profane and utterly compelling, Simmons delivers an absolutely indelible movie character, one that deserves Oscar consideration.
The riveting Whiplash, although named for one of its musical numbers, lives up to its title: it’s sudden and surprising, feverish and ferocious, and it tosses us around.
So we’ll score 3½ stars out of 4. But we won’t congratulate the Whiplash collaborators by declaring it a “good job” because we’ve just been told by Fletcher that such complacent compliments are the enemies of artistic greatness.
Besides, “great job” is more apt.