Chasing jazz hoop dreams and fleeing a paternal legacy of failure, drummer Andrew Neyman arrives for freshman year at a prestigious New York music college. His whole character might be defined by a sound that plays over a black screen to open Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash: a few taps on an open snare, the sticks held in a tensile grip, taut Mylar and coiled steel escalating to a steady, sizzling roll.
We get our first look at Andrew from the far end of a long, dark campus corridor: a lone figure working out on a drum kit late at night in a fluorescent-lit practice room. Played by Miles Teller, his soulful eyes and banged-up pubescent face recalling a young John Cusack, Andrew has sweat-plastered black hair and a soaked-through white V-neck T-shirt that indicate a case of schpilkas that’s only soothed by playing double-time swing for an hour. Clearly, he’s either the hero of a coming-of-age-tale just waiting for his mentor—or a fine prospect for the nearest cult recruiter.
Exactly which of these descriptions best fits the man who materializes at his practice room’s door—Terence Fletcher—will remain unclear for the rest of the film. A jazz academe hybrid of John Houseman’s Harvard law prof in The Paper Chase and R. Lee Ermey’s drill instructor in Full Metal Jacket, he has the power to make careers and destroy young students’ minds. J.K. Simmons gives a career-best performance as the ropey, head-shaved, skintight-black-T-shirted Fletcher, gatekeeper to the snowcapped heights of professional jazz today. Once installed as alternate drummer in the school’s A-list studio band, Andrew finds himself on the receiving end of the full spectrum of verbal, physical, and psychological abuse Fletcher uses to mold the next Charlie Parker, vent his personal demons, or both.
As Andrew finds himself pitted against the core drummer and a Fletcher-enlisted challenger for the drum stool, his musical ambition turns into something that plays like the early stages of psychosis. Hours of over-practice leave sticks split and hands bloody. The relationship with his menschy suburban dad (Paul Reiser) becomes tinged with disdain. The thrillingly played, shot, and edited performances that mark each musical competition drive the narrative toward the brink of insanity.
As a teenage drummer, director Chazelle was himself selected for his New Jersey high school’s nationally competitive jazz ensemble, whose conductor imposed a level of rigor, angst, and discipline few civilians ever experience. For his debut feature in 2009, he made the indie Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, shooting MGM song-and-dance numbers as monochrome Boston verité, coming up with a loose, stylish lark that gave no hint of the spring-loaded psychodrama he’d go on to assemble.
Buttonholing Andrew at rehearsal break, Fletcher shares the ur-myth of this film: how Charlie Parker’s lackluster showing at a jam session made drummer Philly Joe Jones hurl a cymbal at him, thus motivating the practice sessions that produced jazz’s Ultimate Killing Machine. The perverse logic of interrogation, humiliation, discipline, and education play sublimely as extreme black comedy. (Mostly black, exclusively male, and played by young top-tier musicians, the Studio Band brings a spit-valve-clearing, floor-tom-tuning authenticity that grounds the film in jazz’s social and physical reality.)
Once it hits its stride, Whiplash gets so many things so right it starts to feel like the perfect-ten Ellington rendition its elite big bands play in the big competition. In nearly every cut and tempo shift, the film moves with acute rhythmic sensitivity, and Chazelle works out the conflicts and plot points the film needs to find its logical climax with a purely musical moment that may satisfy as drama even more than it does as music spectacle. As a character, Fletcher is a Rorschach test for feelings about fathers and teachers—and any high-stakes training where tough love and sadism are often indistinguishable.