Review: ‘Whiplash’ hits both the high, low notes
We only hear about them if there’s video or audio — coaches, mostly — a Bobby Knight, grabbing and choking players, a Mike Rice, hurling basketballs and the foulest abuse at a recruit.
We hear the rationalizations, shake our heads and watch the court of public opinion take them down.
In “Whiplash,” Terrence Fletcher is Bobby Knight with a baton, the tyrant of the jazz-band program at New York’s prestigious Shaffer Conservatory. A mercurial bully, he charms and flatters only so he can tear down those he charms and flatters — trumpeters and ‘bones players, bassists and drummers — with the ugliest vulgarity and cruelty you could imagine.
And playing him, deftly delivering the bipolar changes in mood, tone and volume, is the great character actor J.K. Simmons.
“Whiplash” is about that band bully and his latest target, a drummer so driven to be among the jazz greats that he will play until the blood spatters from his raw hands all over his drum kit. Andrew (Miles Teller) establishes his drumming bonafides in an opening practice scene. He can play. And for the rest of this film, Teller holds his own with Simmons in a jaw-dropping battle of wills, a musical descent into madness, all in pursuit of perfection.
Expanded from a short film by screenwriter turned writer-director Damien Chazelle, “Whiplash” gives us nerve-wracking rehearsals of classic big-band charts.
All the young players are on edge.
Fletcher kicks people out, just to send a message. He conducts instant, mid-rehearsal witch hunts to figure out who is out of tune. He throws things, and not lightweight things, either.
Andrew’s failed-writer/wife-left-him dad (Paul Reiser) is supportive. But that will be used against him. The kid tries for normality, pursuing the cute candy-counter girl (Melissa Benoist) at the Manhattan revival-house movie theater he frequents with his movie-buff dad.
Chazelle ups the tempo and the tension of scenes with quick cuts and extreme close-ups. This is as paranoid and cutthroat a world as the movies have ever seen, and Andrew, the “squeaker” (new guy), is just another bone for Fletcher to chew.
The script and Simmons make Fletcher a monster, and then look for ways of explaining him. We see a sentimental side, his genial public face.
It’s a great performance, and Teller, in a performance just as intense, gives us the faintest hope that this kid will grow the callouses to withstand the beatdowns. If his craving for approval doesn’t drive him mad first.
Roger Moore reviews movies for McClatchy News Service.