On the face of it, the battle of wills between a young fledgling jazz drummer (Miles Teller) brought to the breaking point by his sadistic, racist, homophobic music conservatory instructor (J.K. Simmons) sounds about edgy and gripping as, say, one of those old be-the-best-you-can-be feel-good fluff flicks like Fame or Flashdance. Instead, it becomes painful, sweaty, bloody, and crazily compelling in Whiplash, expanded in record time from his 2013 Sundance Film Festival teaser short by writer-director Damien Chazelle.
Whiplash feels so tough, relentless and go-for-broke obsessive that it plays like The Red Shoes meets Full Metal Jacket meets The Great Santini. Sure, at heart it’s still an underdog tale but it’s been directed and written so intelligently — and edited with such punchy staccato energy by Tom Cross — that it works like gangbusters. And then, there are the two central performances. Teller has been a scene-grabber in movies like The Spectacular Now and a motor-mouthed, overly confident irritant in others. Here, he’s intensely physical and focused playing a young guy desperate to overcome the mediocrity of the other men in his family, especially his well-meaning father (Paul Reiser). His character’s dedication to and obsession with being a jazz music great like his iconic idols, Buddy Rich and Charlie Parker — playing until his hands spout blood — is scary, moving, and exhilarating. In Simmons (who is flat-out brilliant), he finds a monstrous, demanding, verbally abusive and terrifying drill sergeant of a father figure, permanently clad in black.
As an ode to jazz, to the single-minded pursuit of greatness, and to the agony and exultation of jamming to one’s inner drummer, Whiplash hardly misses a beat. *** ½