Writer-director Damien Chazelle embraces his protagonist’s relentless quest for excellence and addresses the madness that such obsession can yield in his master-pupil psychothriller “Whiplash.” Contrivances prevent the film from being truly great, but it’s a compelling must-see nonetheless.
Chazelle (“Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench”) puts a wicked twist on the dedicated-teacher plot and combines it with elements that bring to mind boot-camp action fare and “Black Swan” and other Darren Aronofsky tales about people who pursue passions to the point of self-destruction. While the story centers on a jazz drummer, you don’t have to like jazz to be stirred by its wannabe Buddy Rich.
Not wanting to be like his failed-writer father (Paul Reiser), 19-year-old Andrew (Miles Teller) practices maniacally on his drums at a prestigious Manhattan conservatory.
He impresses Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the intimidating conductor of the school’s top jazz ensemble. Lean and bald, with a hipster look and a scary vein on the side of his head, Fletcher verbally and sometimes physically assaults students who lag even remotely behind. “Not quite my tempo,” he says, cutting off the band with a menacing shake of his fist. At one point, he throws a chair. He humiliates Andrew in front of the others by deriding Andrew’s dad.
Seeking jazz glory, Andrew tolerates the bullying. He drums until his hands bleed. He callously dumps his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist).
Andrew becomes a primary drummer in Fletcher’s ensemble, and then is demoted by the machinating Fletcher. Andrew’s future could hinge on a high-profile competition.
A traffic incident results in a dangerous mad dash, a development that drips with cliche.
It’s also hard to buy that nobody criticizes Fletcher’s homophobic, racist and anti-Semitic language. Fletcher, a sadist who runs his class like a drill sergeant, is so over-the-top, viewers have to shift into allegorical gear to believe him.
Yet Chazelle builds suspense superbly, and the performances triumph. The film is an entertaining thriller, a powerful emotional duel, a moving portrait of a young artist finding his path, and a nonjudgmental look at consequences of excessive teaching methods.
Simmons is daunting and extraordinary from the moment Chazelle introduces the black-clad monster, but it is Teller, a former drummer, who carries the film. He is both physically and emotionally gripping as a young man with an obsession that, were this more of a fairy tale, might be comparable to the “Red Shoes” heroine.
The title refers to a composition that Fletcher’s students play.
three and a half stars
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist
Written and directed by: Damien Chazelle
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes