It does not look like a major art film, but it is. Whiplash is a compact and confident piece, a character-concentrated portrait made with pure artistic fidelity. Classics like “The Bicycle Thief” (1948) and “Le Samourai” (1967) are masterful examples of storytelling economy, and so is this one. This Damien Chazelle film is also fascinating even if you don’t like jazz. Who is Chazelle? To be honest, I don’t even know, but I’m standing tall at attention now for whatever he does next.
Actors Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are always going to be remembered for this film, for their intensity and for their flawlessness. Teller was a scene-stealer in “Rabbit Hole” and “Footloose,” and you thought, gee, here is a better than average young actor. But look at “Spectacular Now” and “Whiplash” where he’s a drummer student and you see Teller is a major film actor, one of young wisdom, tact, natural humor and heart. Simmons has been a dryly funny background actor in a bunch of films, most notably a droll face in Jason Reitman movies (“Juno,” “Up in the Air”), and he can turn on the sarcastic-o-meter by barely trying in such throwaway bits as in “Extract.” Now he’s a mad dog dictator for a music school instructor, and he’s electrifying. Like R. Lee Ermey of “Full Metal Jacket,” but with layers beneath layers of origami substance underneath. Because underneath, there is some definite love and passion for jazz music and that’s the key of why his performance is great, and why it registers as sympathetic even if he’s long lost it with benevolent human relations.
The place is the Schaffer Academy in Manhattan, alas it’s fictional, but it might as well be standing in for Julliard. The student, Andrew Neiman, is an obviously talented jazz drummer – talent demonstrated as early as scene one, there’s no wasted time here – whose hero is Buddy Rich. The instructor, Terence Fletcher, is a Charlie Parker fanatic who has dreamed of finding a student one day who can compare, yet nobody does. He uses intimidation tactics on his students, providing chair for a student in the band and then kicking them out, with regular gusto. “Not quite my tempo!” is his kindest criticism, but often, his instruction steers into sadism. Fletcher contends he is pushing his students into greatness with his maverick methods, but is that true?
“Whiplash” as a portrait of a backstabbing music school (there’s only one drummer seat, it has to be fought for) is akin to “Black Swan,” the 2010 entry on backstabbing ballet opera. We live in an increasingly competitive world. Andrew knows that, in fact, he has no time for anything else he figures out in a few terse scenes. The film doesn’t waste itself on time for anything else, either. Here is a film with non-stop adrenaline, at one point made me blurt out “Oh God, no!”, the classroom scenes are pressure cookers, the relationship between student and teacher enigmatic, the tension heart-throbbing, the music pulsating, and last, a finale that’s deserving from everything that came before it.
106 Minutes. Rated R.
DRAMA / INSPIRATIONAL / LATE NIGHT PSYCHODRAMA