Miles Teller stars as Andrew Neyman, an ambitious 19 year-old jazz drummer at Schaffer Conservatory – one of the best music schools in America. When Andrew’s practising catches the ear of Schaffer’s top tutor Terence Fletcher, played to perfection by J.K. Simmons, the first-year student is invited to join Fletcher’s band as an alternate.
The formidable Fletcher pushes his musicians to the brink of both suicide and excellence, via cascades of verbal and physical abuse. In one early scene, when he hears one of his band out of tune he starts berating the woodwind section. He directs his anger at one particular student, who initially denies his culpability, but after increased pressure from a yelling Fletcher, confesses. After dismissing the poor kid and dropping him from the band, Fletcher informs the rest that he wasn’t out of tune at all, “but he didn’t know the difference. And that’s just as bad.”
Despite it only being January, J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of Terence Fletcher will hold up as one of the best performances of the year. It reinstates the fact that Simmons is still one of the best character actors around, he switches from cruel taskmaster to compassionate father-figure in a quarter beat, which makes it all the more understandable why Andrew holds him in such high esteem whilst simultaneously fearing him.
It’s this drive to become one of the greats that pushes the characters and the story. And while the plot of Whiplash may be a little thin, betrayed mainly by a flat, unrealized girlfriend role for Melissa Benoist, this film is really a character study of a young drummer determined to become a legend, and his troubled relationship with a conductor obsessed with finding a talented protégé who he’ll push to be the best.
Miles Teller brings a homely quality to Andrew and while the audience might not always be rooting for him, you certainly sympathize with him. J.K. Simmons unleashes hilarious and terrifying vitriol upon his students, reminiscent of R. Lee Ermey’s Sergeant Hartman in Full Metal Jacket, and you sometimes wonder why the new recruit takes it. But some well-placed humane moments show a more personable side to Fletcher, helping flesh out the character and avoiding him slip into caricature.
Bloody drum sticks and a barking conductor beat the film’s message into you, but they also keep the tempo high and the audience enraptured.