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Few movies are as viscerally entertaining and engrossing as Whiplash.  From the opening drumbeat against a black screen to the very last frame of the film, you are hooked.  J.K. Simmons is astounding, as is Miles Teller, who just keeps getting better and better with every film that he does.  Writer/director (and relative newcomer) Damien Chazelle has created one of the most heart pounding and inspiring movies to grace the screen in a while.

Set at the fictional music school Shaffer Conservatory in New York City, Whiplash tells the story of 19-year-old Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller), a very promising first year drumming student.  The film opens as Andrew, practicing in the basement of the conservatory, is discovered by the head of the music department (and musical genius) Terence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons in his Oscar-winning performance.  The two form a bond, as Fletcher recruits Andrew to play drums in his advanced jazz orchestra.  Fletcher’s style is aggressive, to say the least, as Andrew is pushed to the limits of his ability (emotionally and physically).  While Andrew struggles to find balance in his life, finding that there is less and less room for romantic and familial relationships, his blind ambition to be one of the greatest drummers of all time pushes him to the edge.

The performances in this film are what really separates it from the less memorable movies of the same genre.  Miles Teller’s performance as Andrew, a drummer who is driven to the point of obsession, is truly remarkable.  Teller has received critical acclaim in several of his recent films, including the 2013 film The Spectacular Now, as well as his breakthrough role in the 2010 adaptation of Rabbit Hole.  In Whiplash, he gives perhaps his best and boldest performance to date.  In the previously mentioned films as well as his latest, Teller tends to play broken characters with troubled pasts, yet he plays them with an incredible amount of empathy and compassion.  Teller’s Andrew is fanatically ambitious, yet he yearns for love and approval.  It is an extraordinarily demanding role—not just emotionally, but also in the fact that he must play the drums, and play them convincingly well in almost every scene in the movie.  Teller spent several months learning the songs he plays in the movie, and his work pays off.  The end result is a seamless performance, both emotionally and technically, as we watch a young man attempt to become one of the greatest drummers of all time.

It is impossible to talk about this film without discussing J.K. Simmons’ Oscar-winning performance as the brutally tough yet highly respected music teacher and conductor Terence Fletcher.  Simmons goes from loving to ice cold, manipulating his students (particularly his talented young drummer Andrew) to get them to be the best musicians they can be.  Watching him, we fear him as much as we admire him, as he plays with his students’ emotions, if only to make them great.  His character can be summed up in a line he has near the end of the film, as he tells Andrew that the worst words you can say to someone is “Good job”.  Simmons takes this statement to heart, and his performance embodies it from start to finish.

Whiplash is actually based on a short film by the same name, also featuring J.K. Simmons, and written and directed by Damien Chazelle.  Chazelle does a fantastic job turning the story of a drummer and his teacher into a feature film, creating drama throughout the entire movie.  Much of the credit here goes to the film’s editor, Tom Cross (who, in fact, won the Oscar for Best Editing) for ramping up the tension as the film practically plays like one long musical piece.  This, combined with the dark and gritty cinematography by Sharone Meir, and fleshed out by the other performances in the film (including Paul Reiser’s grounded performance as Andrew’s father, and Melissa Benoist’s charming portrayal of Andrew’s girlfriend Nicole), make Whiplash one of the best films of 2014.  If you can find it in a theater, make a point to see it.


Movie Review by Mike Danner mike danner