Released this coming Friday, “Whiplash” tells a story you will have seen before. The story of a young and talented protégé who is taken on by an unconventional and driven mentor determined to propel them both to greatness whatever the cost. It’s the well-worn trope of a dozen sports movies and even more army boot camp films but “Whiplash” rises above its clichéd story beats thanks to its fresh setting and the potent and ferocious central performances from Miles Teller and J K Simmons.
Set in the fictional New York Shaffer Conservatory, the finest music school in America, Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a young and talented drummer who aspires to become one of the greats of Jazz drumming. He is spotted by fearsome Shaffer conductor Terence Fletcher (Simmons) and recruited into the house band. But Fletcher’s demanding and abusive style begin to take their toll on Andrew as he obsessively works to win his mentor’s approval.
If you found the soundtrack of “Birdman” irksome, then this might not be the film for you as drumming is front and centre, as a blistering and bloody crucible. Miles Teller impresses with a multi-layered performance as the ambitious, arrogant but untempered drummer (and continues to be one of the few hopes I have for the “Fantastic Four” movie to be anything other than a train wreck) and his dedication to the role means he literally puts his own blood, sweat and tears into the insanely punishing jazz percussion routines.
But it’s J K Simmons’ Terence Fletcher who will linger longest in your memory. In Fletcher, Simmons has created one of 21st Century cinema’s greatest monsters. Capable of switching from quite kindness to demonic intensity on an apparent whim, he’s a truly terrifying, monstrously cruel and vindictive creation, ruthlessly justifying his viciousness as a necessity to uncover true talent. He is the distilled essence of the philosophy of tough love and being cruel to be kind.
Yes, the film largely follows a conventional ‘Fame costs’ path and relies too heavily on repeated references to an apocryphal story about Charlie “The Bird” Parker while pushing the increasingly discredited theory that practice alone makes perfect but the central performances elevate the material far beyond its limitations. When the film finally casts off the shackles of its familiar story with a breath-taking third act twist as the intense psychological war of attrition between Andrew and Fletcher reaches its astonishing climax, it delivers not only a master class in both acting and cinema but a powerful and mesmeric finale.