You already know the ferocious jazz teacher played by JK Simmons in the electrifying New York-set drama ‘Whiplash’ if you've seen things like ‘Full Metal Jacket’, ‘Battle Royale’ and even the grizzly bear in ‘Grizzly Man’. Clad fully in black, biceps bulging, Simmons’s Fletcher exudes attitude: he rules the top department of an elite New York music school with a clenched first.
Part of the joy of watching dramas like this must be a masochistic thrill in seeing young hopefuls suffer: drumming student Andrew (Miles Teller from ‘The Spectacular Now’, fully convincing) is nearly destroyed by this monster, a barking man who’s impossible to please. Yet even though our hero’s knuckles bleed and his snare gets spattered, you think: that’s some truly glorious noise he’s making. The discipline and beauty of bebop has never been better served by a film.
‘Whiplash’ might have followed this trajectory to a feel-good destination, one involving a recital, some proud parents and a teary hug. But that’s not where the young American writer-director Damien Chazelle wants to go – and bless him for it. Fletcher’s put-downs become more vicious (and riotously un-PC), the drive to perfection turns Andrew into a bitter, uncaring boyfriend, and the plot’s tone nears that of a thriller, sometimes awkwardly.
Credibility becomes shaky: will a violent car crash prevent Andrew from staggering to the gig in a concussed delirium? Don’t ask. Disappointing Fletcher is too terrifying a prospect. But there’s also unusual, spiky attention paid to the pursuit of excellence, as Andrew begins to resent the mediocre achievements of his family. By the end, he’s an arrogant, cymbal-smashing machine.
How breathtaking it is to see a story go there. The identity this teen chases after is a lonely one, but it’s impeccably on the beat. Real art, the movie suggests, isn’t for those who merely hope to do a ‘good job’ and please themselves. ‘Whiplash’ explores the outer reaches of crazy passion. It never apologises. And the flurry of drumming it ends with – Teller’s solo is staggering – is both a magical cacophony and, obliquely, a door slamming shut. I don’t know if I'd show this film to a curious young person, not unless you’d ever want to see them again. They’d be in their room, practicing, forever.