A movie about a jazz drummer doesn’t sound very exciting. But “Whiplash” certainly is, and it actually doesn’t have as much to do with jazz music as it does the people who live and breathe it.
The film is enthralling and surprisingly gripping — just when you think you know where the story is going, you don’t. And it’s rousing in only the way that the best underdog stories are.
It’s driven by fiercely roiling, all-in performances by Miles Teller (“The Spectacular Now”) and J.K. Simmons, a character actor you will most certainly recognize but might not place. He’s been in everything from the Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” to “Juno” to TV’s “The Closer.” He is sure to attract Oscar attention for best supporting actor.
Teller plays Andrew, a 19-year-old quiet loner and first-year student at one of the most prestigious music conservatories in the country. He’s a jazz drummer and yearns to be one of the greats, completely immersing himself in jazz classics and practicing drumming until his blisters bleed.
He attracts the attention of the school’s must reputable — and feared — instructor, Fletcher (Simmons), who leads the top jazz ensemble in the school. Andrew is elated.
But his elation is short-lived. Once in Fletcher’s rehearsal room, Andrew finds that the man uses fear to keep his students on edge to do their best work. He goes so far as to slap Andrew in front of everyone to prove a point. Fletcher also likes to hurl chairs at his students — he makes a drill sergeant look like a Girl Scout.
This only makes Andrew work harder, for Fletcher makes it known that Andrew’s place in the ensemble is at jeopardy at all times.
As Andrew becomes obsessed, he pushes himself to dangerous limits, physically and emotionally. And his control begins to slip.
The film is beautifully photographed by Sharone Meir, giving the scenes an ocher palette and a rich sense of place. It’s also deftly edited by Tom Cross, adding accents with close-ups of sheet music or zoning in on the emotion behind the musicians’ eyes. We feel what they feel, and it’s usually panic.
Writer/director Damien Chazelle, whose only previous feature was the 2009 musical drama “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench,” manages to make a classroom a battlefield with just as many casualties. Outward facades begin to crack; emotions that might seep out are quickly quelled.
It’s easy to see why “Whiplash” won the audience award and grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Its potency is staggering.
And when we get to the climax, the blows finally come to a head. Music suddenly becomes a weapon, with all the ferocity of a heated boxing match.
Named after a jazz standard, “Whiplash” is anything but standard. It’s surprising, absolutely stunning and will leave you soaring.
Rating: R for strong language including some sexual references
Starring: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
See my 59-second review of “Whiplash” on my online show “Screen/Scene with Rod Pocowatchit” at www.ictscreenscene.com.