Miles Teller drums his heart out — and then some — in writer-director Damien Chazelle’s stellar career-starter, “Whiplash,” which demolishes the cliches of the musical-prodigy genre, investing the traditionally polite stages and rehearsal studios of a topnotch conservatory with all the psychological intensity of a battlefield or sports arena. Chazelle proves an exceptional builder of scenes, crafting loaded, need-to-succeed moments that grab our attention and hold it tight, thanks largely to co-star J.K. Simmons as the school’s most intimidating instructor — a talent evidenced a year earlier by the three-scene teaser that took Sundance’s top shorts prize.
The short was partly the brainchild of producers Jason Reitman and Jason Blum, whose hopes that “Whiplash” might break out beyond the niche confines of staid young-musician movies were boosted significantly by its high-energy opening-night berth at Sundance. Substitute its jazz-band specialty for hip-hop, and the commercial prospects would skyrocket — though it’s plenty accessible to all as executed.
“Whiplash” is not about drumming, after all, but rather just how far someone will go to be the best. Teller’s 19-year-old Andrew descends from a long line of mediocrity (embodied by his far-from-competitive father, played by Paul Reiser), but he is determined to add his name to the short list of widely known jazz greats. Andrew is certainly dedicated enough, practicing until his fingers bleed on more than one occasion. Despite his junior status as a first-year student, Andrew manages to catch the ear of Terence Fletcher (Simmons), who offers him a seat in his band.
From the opening scene, Chazelle (who made his feature debut with 2009’s low-budget jazz musical “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench”) makes it known that Fletcher has the power to launch — or cut short — young careers, introducing Simmons’ character smoldering sans cigarette in shadows straight out of film noir. Owing more to R. Lee Ermey’s tough-love drill sergeant from “Full Metal Jacket” than he does the genre’s typical positive-reinforcement pap, Fletcher is even more intimidating in front of the studio band, where he lets fly torrents of emasculating and openly homophobic invective directed against any and all who disappoint. The character is capricious and cruel, making him a volatile force in Andrew’s life, even in scenes where the conductor isn’t physically present.
One naturally assumes that talented musicians play for the sheer pleasure of their art, but “Whiplash” suggests that fear is far and away their best motivator. For those seeking perfection, one tiny slip threatens to jeopardize the ensemble as a whole. As a result, Fletcher’s strategy is to humiliate the stragglers in front of the entire group — the sort of abuse more commonly associated with locker rooms and war movies, whose high stakes Chazelle brings to bear on this more civilized arena.
“There are no two words more harmful than ‘good job,’” Fletcher confides at one point, explaining how encouragement breeds complacency. By contrast, fear of verbal abuse — or the occasional flying chair — keeps the musicians on their toes, and Simmons has no trouble performing the vitriolic putdowns that the role requires, channeling some of his old “Oz” persona. By contrast, the unsung supporting cast does wonders with little dialogue, letting subtle body language convey the intensely competitive dynamic, where “core” players perform while alternates turn their pages.
For most of the ensemble, music is everything. Instead of incorporating subplots for the sake of it, Chazelle zeroes in on Andrew’s attraction to Nicole (“Glee” newcomer Melissa Benoist), the concession-counter gal from his local movie theater. Andrew is painfully shy at first, but success at school gives him just enough confidence to initiate a conversation, which leads to a pair of follow-up scenes biting enough to have been written by Aaron Sorkin, as Andrew calculates that dating would merely get in the way of his dream.
Apart from the occasional high-concept camera move, Chazelle generally steers clear of imposing a heavy style on his story. Simmons’ outbursts certainly command the lion’s share of the attention, though the helmer borrows Bob Fosse-style jump cuts to inject real excitement into a world that many associate with PBS fodder. “Whiplash” has a built-in advantage in that it’s set in the world of jazz competitions, where Fletcher likes to keep the tempo set as high as 300 beats per minute. That energy comes through in Teller’s hyper-physical performance — yet another radical departure for an actor who’s been out-transforming nearly everyone in his generation. Here, he starts too shy to exchange more than a few words with Nicole and reaches a point where he’s effectively pouring out his subconscious onstage.
Meanwhile, as much fun as Fletcher is to watch, his behavior is nothing shy of monstrous, and one can sense the clash brewing between the conductor and his new favorite student far in advance. Surface intrigues aside, however, the film is ultimately about a rivalry not between Andrew and his instructor, but between the promising teenage drummer and himself. Adversity helped create Charlie Parker, and Chazelle’s highly entertaining experiment asks whether such rejection breeds greatness, and if so, at what cost?