Legend has it that Charlie Parker only became Bird because Jo Jones furiously threw a cymbal at his head when he choked on stage. At least that’s the story Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the barbarous band conductor in Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” uses to justify the emotional and physical abuse he subjects his students to during rehearsal. A feature-length reprise of Chazelle’s award-winning short of the same name, the film also stars Miles Teller (“The Spectacular Now”) as Andrew, a budding young drummer at the country’s top music school who thinks he’s the next Buddy Rich. This high-energy tale of blood, toil, tears and sweat feels especially apt given this year’s inclusion of the “Free Fail” panel at the festival, which, like the film itself, explores the notion of failure as integral to the creative process.
For the 19-year-old Andrew, the concepts of success and failure are as narrowly defined as the insular world he inhabits. Without a single friend at school, rhythm consumes his life. Splitting his time between the conservatory’s stuffy rehearsal spaces and an even stuffier dorm room where he’s sacrificed sleeping space in order to squeeze in a drum kit for after-after hours practice, he only comes into contact with the outside world at the badly lit movie theater he frequents with his father (Paul Reiser). It’s here that he meets Nicole (Melissa Benoist), the pleasantly pretty (if thinly written) girl who works the concession stand.
Save for a bit of opening exposition, the feature picks up where the short left off. Hitting something fierce late one night, Andrew is not so much invited as he is ordered to attend one of Fletcher’s infamous practices. Coming in with high hopes, Andrew finds the experience sobering, to say the least. Dressed head to toe in black, his bald head gleaming under the fluorescent bulbs of the seemingly airtight rehearsal room, Simmons’ Fletcher cuts an imposing figure. More of a drill sergeant than a teacher, Fletcher demands perfection from his players and does whatever it takes to get it, whether berating them with crass insults or taking a leaf out of Jones’ book and hurling folding chairs at their thick skulls.
Playing one drummer against another, Fletcher reserves the brunt of his head games for Andrew, and it’s never quite clear if Fletcher sees something in his new pupil or just enjoys watching him squirm. “There are no two words more dangerous in the English language than ‘good job,'” he says at one point, revealing a method to his manipulative madness. The gray zone that defines this central teacher-student relationship relies heavily on Simmons’ performance, which buffers what could very well veer toward caricature with well-seasoned nuance. It’s also responsible for keeping the audience on the edge of their seat from start to earth-quaking finish; every time the story seems doomed by formulaic convention, it is saved by an unexpected twist or turn.
The collective gasps that filled the theater on opening night should stand as a testament to Chazelle’s impressive ability to inject the film’s musical milieu with thriller-level tension. Although the life-or-death stakes experienced by the main character may be pushed beyond the limits of reality at times, Andrew’s sense of all-consuming urgency comes across on a visceral level. In one particularly affecting scene, Fletcher rotates his three drummers for hours on end until their shirts are soaked through with sweat, their hands bleeding and raw. It’s the kind of physicality one might expect from a sports movie but rarely finds in films about musicians, and the otherwise mild-mannered Teller is able to unleash the fury with the sticks, holding his own amongst the professional musicians that make up the supporting cast.
Although the two films may share an aural fixation, “Whiplash” operates on a completely different plain from Chazelle’s free-floating debut, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.” Opting here for a rhythmically precise editing style that even Fletcher would approve of, editor Tom Cross uses rapid cuts that make watching a band practice as exciting as a high-speed car chase. While the film derives its title from the particularly intimidating piece of music Andrew is forced to sight read on his first day, it also provides an accurate description of the frenzied viewing experience, which culminates in a seismic final scene that overrides the film’s minor flaws. Revealing both the dangers and payoffs of artistic ambition, “Whiplash” is sure to establish Chazelle as a directorial force to be reckoned with.
A version of this review ran during the Sundance Film Festival. “Whiplash” opens in New York and Los Angeles this Friday ahead of a national expansion.