During the signature scene in Whiplash, music instructor Terence Fletcher throws a chair at Andrew Neiman, a 19-year-old jazz drummer at the best music conservatory in the country. “Why do you suppose I just hurled a chair at your head, Neiman?” Fletcher asks. When the student fails to answer, whether he was “rushing” or “dragging,” the teacher slaps him — again and again.
Miles Teller plays the vulnerable Neiman, whose hero is Buddy Rich. J.K. Simmons plays Fletcher, the drill sergeant who revels in telling the story of drummer Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at saxophonist Charlie Parker’s head as punishment for losing the beat while playing in Count Basie’s band. Both characters claim the incident inspired Parker to practice obsessively, changing the history of jazz, although the film gets the story wrong. Either way, Fletcher and Neiman are a perfect match, the sadist and the masochist.
Whiplash is tense, thrilling filmmaking, and Neiman’s drums up the tempo even more. But writer-director Damien Chazelle, 29, has made a sports movie at a music school — with the push and pull of an athlete and coach butting heads in pursuit of perfection. This film isn’t a celebration of jazz. It is two white guys in a staring contest over the black man’s classical music.
Simmons insults his students with such volume and color that his natural inspiration might have been R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. But he owes more to the real-life Bobby Knight (who also threw chairs), the terrifying Robert Duvall in The Great Santini and Ben Kingsley in Searching for Bobby Fischer, using teaching as a disguise for physical and emotional abuse. Simmons is an intimidating presence, standing erect, his muscles accented by tight, black T-shirts. He has become the favorite to win many best supporting actor awards, but his Fletcher seems one-dimensional. He is too much monster, not enough human being.
Teller traded on his douchebag good looks in Project X and 21 & Over, two party movies from the producers of The Hangover. But last year’s The Spectacular Now and this film have him overcoming that curse. Chazelle’s camera reveals the scars on his face. In the practice montages, he sweats, and his fingers bleed. Teller is working hard.
Paul Reiser is excellent as Neiman’s father. There isn’t one bit of his usual neurotic cadence. The adorable Melissa Benoist plays Neiman’s prospective girlfriend. But he coldly dismisses the girl, considering her a distraction to his obsessions — his drums and the approval of his tormentor.
Whiplash has a few endings, but they are played as deft twists. The most interesting is a conversation between Neiman and Fletcher at a jazz club where the teacher is playing piano. It is a quiet moment. Some of their dysfunctional bond has been severed. Unfortunately, the two main characters agree that being an obsessive asshole is the only path to genius, that being nice means being mediocre, that there is no middle ground and that the humiliation Fletcher afflicted upon Neiman was just.
There is a final showdown between the two, one that can’t be given away. It stretches credulity and rings false. It treats Fletcher with ambiguity, when what he deserved was punishment.
Whiplash is currently playing at The Colony in Raleigh.