J.K. Simmons, the gummy affable bald guy who frequently crowds your TV in those semi-humorous Farmers University Insurance ads, has been a long-toiling character actor waiting for his thick slab of meat. In the interim, he has projected a similar amiable persona as the dad in the indie hit Juno and conjured up something a bit more cantankerous and angry as the news editor J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Rami's Spider-Man trilogy. With Whiplash, Simmons finally gets his steak, and a hunk of Kobe at that.
Directed by Damien Chazelle, Whiplash refers to a jazz composition by Hank Levy, played by a competitive ensemble at the fictitious Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York. The title is also an apt description of the dynamic between Simmons's Mr. Fletcher, the school's hot-headed jazz chair and leader of the elite jazz group, and Andrew (Miles Teller), a "nobody" at the school who one day stumbles onto Fletcher's path. Andrew comes from a family of mediocrity. His dad (played with touching nuance by Paul Reiser) is an ambition-neutered cog in the corporate world, and while Andrew, at first, seems to be part of the "Oh well, that's just how it goes" camp, things change drastically as he and Fletcher lock horns.
Simmons who clearly showed that he's got the irascibility in him with his Spider-Man role, launches Fletcher forward as a sort of Mr. Holland on steroids (as in Mr. Holland's Opus) and R. Lee Ermey's drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket. For the part, Simmons, perennially dressed in black, has honed himself physically to reflect his character's lean meanness. Initially, Fletcher registers as the kind mentor any developing young lad could want when he catches Andrew skinning drums in a studio with a few other JV players. As a result, Fletcher invites him to play with the big boys, and what ensues are cruel, soul-eviscerating mind games. Andrew is promoted and demoted on a dime, and there are scenes where he and his competitors must go at it for hours until their fingers bleed, all the while Fletcher, fresh and full of energy, looms in their face shouting "rushing" or "dragging" as to the tempo. It's a scene very reminiscent of Louis Gossett Jr. barking "steers" and "queers" while overseeing calisthenics in An Officer and a Gentleman.
Fletcher's one big point of justification for all his bullishness — and he does regularly break players and humiliate them with a cocksure cruelty — is inspiring greatness, pointing to Jo Jones tossing a cymbal at the young Charlie Parker's head. He elaborates that without critically tearing down his students there wouldn't have been a Parker without a Jones. Things ebb and flow, and events work around so that Andrew and Fletcher wind up on the same plane. Andrew too, in a bit of an All About Eve evolution, begins to unleash the spite in his heart, with the young coed he's been wooing (Melissa Benoist, Glee) taking the brunt of it.
The film, an expansion of director Chazelle's prize-winning 2013 Sundance short, is a technical wonderment both visually and aurally. Chazelle, whose first feature Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009) also revolved around a jazz musician and a complex relationship, clearly has a passion for beat and composition. Plus, Whiplash shares some similarities with Birdman — it too is a claustrophobic drama set in the New York arts scene. But Whiplash is driven by a snazzy jazz score that keeps the tension near climax and the characters in constant motion, even when thery'd just like to take five. It helps too that Teller, the young actor best known as his role as a boozy high schooler in The Spectacular Now and as a bully in Divergent, has a background in percussion and can hold his own against Simmons — though his boyish looks betray his effort as the table tilts. Chazelle smartly employs real musicians to fill in at the seams, which means cinematographer Sharone Meir can zoom in on the players without worrying that the technique isn't right. The results that editor Tom Cross create are visceral, from both the emotional tone of the moment and the musical movement.
Given what Teller, Simmons, and Chazelle have accomplished here — and the film is being widely recognized by the awards bodies — it'll be curious to see how the trio follows up. Teller is already in the middle of Bleed for This, the story of boxer Vinny Pazienza, which should be telling, and Simmons is listed for supporting parts in several upcoming projects, but I predict that his part in Whiplash will change that. Chazelle's next project, La La Land again stars Teller and also revolves around jazz (a pianist). Does Chazelle's focus on jazz get better with practice, or has he gone to the well too many times? In either case, there'll always be Whiplash, a minor magnum opus, if ever there was one.