There is a lot of talk about "the next great..." something in Whiplash, the feature directorial debut of Damien Chazelle. Miles Teller's music student incessantly listens to recordings of Buddy Rich and aspires to have a career like the famous drummer. In the hunt for creative catharsis, young artists look for approval from their mentors and peers. One thing is for sure: I'm sure glad I decided to go into choir instead of band in high school.
Teller's Andrew Nieman feels like his life is falling into place. He's been accepted to Shaffer Conservatory, and he finally musters up the courage to ask out the pretty girl who works at the concession stand at a nearby small theater. His earnestness is given a reality check when he's invited to play as an alternate in Terence Fletcher's award-winning jazz ensemble. Fletcher is played by the great J. K. Simmons, and, sadly, his performance was the only thing I liked about Whiplash.
The biggest problem that I had about Whiplash was that Simmons' character never felt real to me--ever. You're telling that this award-winning band director at the most prestigious music school in the country doesn't have a reputation for bullying his students beyond recognition? Not just bullying. Neiman's first session as an alternate under Fletcher's direction ends with furniture being thrown and Fletcher slapping Neiman across the face repeatedly. Tone it down, guys, tone it down.
In Andrew's quest for artistic breakthrough, he leaves a lot behind. He quickly breaks it off with the girl from the movie theater, and stops hanging out with his dad (Paul Reiser). The more Fletcher tries to break him, the harder he pushes back. In one shocking scene, Andrew leaves his music behind, and he rushes back to get it, resulting in an accident that made me jump in my chair.
Is his obsession with becoming one of the greats just a product of him butting heads with Fletcher? He becomes so petulant angry, and self-righteous that it was hard for me to root for him. It quickly became the story of two pricks trying to finish first in an abusive measuring contest. It's appreciated that Simmons didn't make Fletcher one of those teachers trying to "teach a lesson," but it just spirals too out of control. Fletcher is fleshed out by Simmons' ferocious performance (seriously, he's terrifying), but it wouldn't have worked without such a seasoned actor. Teller isn't an actor that I personally respond to, and his performance (while spectacular in energy) didn't make me like him any more.
There is a scene where Andrew practices so hard that his fingers start to bleed. That's how I felt after watching Whiplash. All the blood was drained out of me, and it was only going to get wiped up by a poor janitor who isn't paid enough.