Review: ‘Whiplash’ hits both the high, low notes |

Review: ‘Whiplash’ hits both the high, low notes

Sony Pictures Classic
Miles Teller (left) and J.K. Simmons in 'Whiplash'
Sony Pictures Classic
Miles Teller in 'Whiplash'
Sony Pictures Classic
J.K. Simmons (left) and Miles Teller in 'Whiplash'

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.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.