‘Whiplash’ movie review: J.K. Simmons goes Full Metal Jacket in music school drama

You would be forgiven for thinking that a movie about drumming wouldn’t be terribly exciting, but debut writer-director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is quite the surprise: this drama about a music student and his vitriolic mad-dog instructor is one of 2014’s most intense and suspenseful films.

It’s something like Mr. Holland’s Opus meets Full Metal Jacket; J.K. Simmons’ instructor is so brutal, violent, and foul-mouthed that one of our only cinematic benchmarks for his performance is R. Lee Ermey’s gunnery sergeant from Kubrick’s war movie.

The film caused a stir at last year’s Sundance film festival, where it won both the top Audience and Grand Jury prizes; nearly a year later, it opens in the Czech Republic. In the meantime, it has garnered countless other awards, along with five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

That Adapted Screenplay nod caused some controversy, as director Chazelle based the film on his own experiences as a high school musician in a competitive jazz band. His original script for the film was featured in the 2012 Black List of best unproduced screenplays.

Unable to raise the funds to make a feature-length film himself, however, Chazelle initially turned it into a 15-minute short that won a prize at Sundance in 2013. Based on the strength of the short film, the director was able to make the feature-length version a year later, and thus his original screenplay became an “adaptation” along the way.

In Whiplash, Miles Teller stars as Andrew Neimann, a 19-year-old student at the prestigious Shaffer Conservatory. Simmons is Terrence Fletcher, conductor for the school’s band, who sees something in Andrew while casually dropping in on his class and invites him to become an alternate to the band’s core drummer.

The setup is nothing new, and you may be expecting something along the lines of a traditional teacher-student story where the strict-but-fair instructor breaks through the student’s tough exterior in order to make him a better musician (read: person) and everyone goes home having learned something valuable.

But throw all notions of that away in the very first scene between the two, when Fletcher sits Andrew with the band and invites him to play along to Hank Levy’s jazz composition Whiplash. He’s initially sympathetic, but Andrew is slightly off tune; with every raise of the fist to cut him off, we can see the vein in Simmons’ forehead growing larger and larger.

No more Mr. Nice Guy. Fletcher berates Andrew verbally, throws a chair at him, slaps him across the face, and drives him to tears in front of the band. And this is just the beginning.

From that moment on, the movie becomes something else entirely. Simmons’ conductor is so over-the-top that his actions actually become the driving force for the screenplay, taking what could have been a conventional story and turning it into something original and surprising.

There are, of course, the expected scenes for this kind of movie, such as the big performance that Andrew is desperately trying to get to on time. These scenes aren’t executed with the highest level of finesse or craftsmanship (how, exactly, has Andrew found himself in this situation?) but there’s a kinetic, dreamlike quality to the action that places the emphasis not on the end result, but on the overall situation and the psyche of the characters.

Simmons is all but guaranteed of a Supporting Oscar for his work here, and deservedly so; his on-of-a-kind performance drives the film. Still, I found it a little strange that climactic scenes start to sympathize with his character, or even condone his methods: this guy is flat-out abusive and deserves comeuppance in the form of jail time or worse. That Buddy Rich story the characters keep repeating ain’t cutting it.

Still, Andrew’s climactic performance represents the kind of movie magic we so rarely see anymore. Whiplash is the hidden gem among the 2014 awards crowd, and a startling debut for its director.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.