Shaffer Conservatory Of Music is not only the best music school in New York...but it's the best in America.
Student Miles Teller - newly arrived - not only wants to succeed but wants to become one of the all-time great jazz drummers. He gets his opportunity when he's personally auditioned by teacher J K Simmons and invited to join the school's flagship jazz orchestra. Getting in was hard - staying in the orchestra proves to be almost impossible. Simmons is a ruthless taskmaster, throwing insults and chairs if anyone can't achieve - overachieve - his exacting standards. Keep up or get out. You want fame? Well, fame costs - and here is where Teller starts paying not only in sweat but in tears, blood....and his belief in himself.
Despite a supporting cast, there are really only two characters in this film - Teller's eager-to-please student and J K Simmons' brutally unsympathetic professor. It's the back-and-forth between these two personalities that gives WHIPLASH its energy, its snap, its tension. Miles Teller excels in his role, his character having to endure euphoric heights and soul-destroying lows - often in the same scene. Teller is also an accomplished drummer in his own right and so gives his part the musical credibility it needs.
However - with due respect to Teller - this is Simmons' film. He dominates every scene as the sadistic Fletcher, viciously tearing into his students with cutting, imaginative insults. Yet although he does monstrous things, Fletcher is no monster. Scriptwriter Damien Chazelle - who also directs - takes care to ensure Fletcher is not your run-of-the-mill, one dimensional hard bastard. There are many different shades to the character - light as well as dark - and Simmons blends them into a convincing, believable character. You may hate the guy but he's no cartoon. Instead, feel sorry for Robert Duvall, Ethan Hawke, Edward Norton and Mark Ruffalo. There is no way on earth that the Best Supporting Actor Oscar is going anywhere else other than J K Simmons' shelf next month.
It's a surprise to note that accomplished as it is, this is only the second film from Chazelle. It's a remarkably disciplined piece of work - tight as a drum - with no unnecessary subplots to distract our focus on the two leading characters. There's the kind of creative spark running through WHIPLASH that you find in the best of Scorcese's films. Imaginative camerawork. Razor-sharp editing. Smart, salty dialogue. There's a bold confidence to WHIPLASH that never lets up and keeps you hooked.
As well as script, acting and direction, a film like WHIPLASH stands or falls on the quality of its soundtrack; fortunately, the choice of jazz classics and Justin Hurwitz's score are both exemplary. There's a danger some will be put off by the "j" word. Don't be. Yes, jazz runs through the film - in many ways, its the film's third character - but it's great jazz. It's sure as hell not the anonymous muzak that masquerades as jazz in bars and lifts around the country. This is the real deal. Fired up, red in tooth and claw and hungry for your attention.
A terrific start to the movie year.