Starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons. Rating unavailable.
What does it take to create a genius? You won’t find out from Whiplash, which follows the compelling travails of a young jazz musician but unwinds like a sports movie, complete with blood on the field—or, in this case, drum skins.
Miles Teller, unlikely costar of such films as Project X and That Awkward Moment, has played drums for years and he turns in a stellar portrait of Andrew Neyman, a ruthlessly committed student striving to find his feet at a fictional conservatory in Manhattan. He still meets his suburban, single dad (Paul Reiser) for foreign movies in the city, and also encounters a bright, if directionless, candy-counter girl (Melissa Benoist). But he’s not looking for those kinds of relationships.
Andrew wants to be the next Buddy Rich—better known for his showboating Johnny Carson appearances than for innovation on drums—and might have found a mentor in Terence Fletcher, played in an Oscar-worthy turn by J.K. Simmons, here making his cigar-chomping Spider-Man newspaper editor look like a grade-A pussycat.
In Full Metal Jackass mode, he plays an authoritarian martinet who alternately charms and torments his students, saving the worst treatment—ethnic slurs, personal jibes, homophobic insults, and outright physical assaults—for those closest to him.
The acting is superb, and young writer-director Damien Chazelle deftly lays out the psychology of his characters in scenes that have just the right heft. But the idea that a teacher could be this criminally abusive in an arts school and not be noticed is preposterous. What’s really scary is the assumption—largely unchallenged by the movie—that musical greatness can bloom from such totalitarian grounding.
Andrew shows no signs of personal creativity, on-stage or off-, and appears to be in it solely for the glory. That he gets his revenge by playing his ass off, in a thrilling version of “Caravan”, is appropriate to his personality. But this explosion of pure technique is nothing that would inspire Duke Ellington or Charlie Parker—both cited here but whose genius came from elegant, patiently developed imagination, not military drills.