'Hey, Dad, look at my paradiddle," says the proud little kid, banging out a smart set of beats on a drum kit in an old home movie somewhere in the crazy rush of Whiplash. The boy doesn't know what he's in for.
A propulsive drama about an aspiring jazz musician's torturous mentorship at a prestigious New York conservatory (think Juilliard, although its administrators would rather you not), Whiplash is writer/director Damien Chazelle's hyperventilated nightmare about artistic struggle, artistic ambition. It's as much a horror movie as it is a keenly realized indie about jazz, about art, about what it takes to claim greatness.
Miles Teller, giving it his all and then some, stars as Andrew Neiman, who enters the fall semester at Manhattan's Shaffer Conservatory of Music determined to be the best jazz drummer in the school. His drumming heroes: Buddy Rich, Joe Jones. His music god: Charlie Parker. So what if the saxophonist died, an addict with a shot liver, at 34? He had ascended to the heights. He made music that was bliss.
Pointing Andrew toward this musical nirvana is Terence Fletcher, Shaffer's legendarily rigorous conductor and teacher. J.K. Simmons, who has appeared in every kind of film (and TV series) playing marshals and feds, doctors and DAs, gets the role of his career. His head shaved, his muscles clenched, the veteran character actor plays Fletcher with a mad certainty.
This is a man who showers abuse on his students, throwing epithets and insults, making them quake, shake, break down in tears. He's a maniacal drill sergeant, but also, perhaps, a genius. When Andrew is offered the chance to study with him - and then the possibility of joining Fletcher's core ensemble - a wild smile crosses the nervous protégé's face. Goal accomplished.
Whiplash takes its title from a frenetic blast of music by Hank Levy. The composition is a staple of high school jazz bands, and Chazelle was a drummer in one such unit himself - the film has the ring (and backbeat) of experience. But let's hope his teacher wasn't like Fletcher. Chazelle's movie is a pas de deux of terror: Andrew practices and plays until his hands are blistered and bleeding, Fletcher berates him, belittles him, and, yes, beats him.
There is a girl (Melissa Benoist), a college student Andrew meets at the concession counter of a repertory movie house where he goes with his dad (Paul Reiser). And there is a purposefully excruciating family dinner scene in which Andrew reveals his ambitions, his callowness. But mostly, Whiplash is Andrew battering his drums and Fletcher pummeling his soul.
Chazelle made a beautiful microbudget movie musical a few years back: the black and white, French New Wave-y Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench. It was wistful and romantic and swung with cool syncopations. Whiplash is nothing like that. It's brutal. And breathtaking.
Whiplash ***1/2 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Damien Chazelle. With Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics.
Running time: 1 hour, 46 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz East and Carmike at the Ritz Center/NJ.EndText