Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 01/17/15 17:17:47

"Damn, can this keep a beat."
5 stars (Awesome)

So far, three of the four films that Damien Chazelle has written and/or directed have been about musicians, and for all I know, his script for "The Last Exorcism II" had one in a prominent supporting role. In guessing he has some sort of connection to the field, but that's less important than how he has clearly refined his presentation of it to the point where "Whiplash" is a riveting film told in large part by how people play.

It starts with Andrew Neeman (Miles Teller), an aspiring jazz drummer in his first semester at a prestigious conservatory, in a practice room working late into the night. Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the conductor of the school's top jazz ensemble, hears him. He does not offer words of encouragement, but soon recruits Andrew for his group, and from there, the practices which often cross the line into abuse only pick up. Andrew doesn't quite welcome it, but like the rest of the ensemble, he knows that Fletcher is a path to prestige and perhaps greatness.

If Fletcher is any sort of teacher, that doesn't show on screen; he's a hundred percent taskmaster, and J.K. Simmons dives into that with relish, screaming half of his lines, plowing through strings of vile insults without any sort of breath or slowdown, and always seeming like a vein is about to burst. He'll rein it in a bit in scenes meant to humanize the character a bit, but even then, he always seems to have a purpose, and that's why scenes later revealed to be manipulations also feel like he was being entirely true to himself.

There's also a powerful physicality to how Simmons presents Fletcher; to look at him is to immediately infer that a lifetime under stage lights has sweated anything unnecessary off, with the muscles you need to drum prominent. He doesn't actually play, but it's a heck of a visual signal. One doesn't necessarily associate that sort of visible power with Simmons, just as Paul Reiser is nearly unrecognizable for those who remember a small, lean guy from his sitcom heyday as Andrew's somewhat scruffy, settled-looking father, while Miles Teller's Andrew seems to physically sit between them.

And while Teller isn't given quite the immediately arresting part Simmons is, he's still excellent. He's able to capture Andrew's most vulnerable and abrasive sides simultaneously, making the guy both very easy to identify with but also clearly an outlier. Andrew's drive is both admirable and frightening, and even as we get that he's smart and talented, Teller makes sure that there's a not-yet-matured feel to him that keeps him on the sympathetic side. In addition to all of that, Teller is playing the drums on-camera.

That's a big deal. It's kind of funny that the movie Andrew and his dad go to see toward the beginning of the film is Rififi - one whose most famous sequence is executed in dead silence - but of course, that sequence is also a thrilling example of how much fun it can be to watch someone do a thing well, and large chunks of the movie are just that: Andrew playing the drums, alone or in a group, reacting to Fletcher's screaming or bloodying his hands in practice. There are scenes in between, where he speaks to his father or the nice girl he meets at the theater (Melissa Beonist), some of which are crucial in pushing the plot forward, but watching him play is where one sees the real meat of it. It's initially surprising just how much performance there is in the movie; what's around it is good and crucial, but also clearly secondary.

It is only fitting, then, that the movie climax on a truly astounding performance sequence - that's how these movies end anyway, but Chazelle has put himself in a situation where he has to raise the bar, and does, kicking off with a stunner and then, while presenting the audience with some great jazz, also just throwing a sequence of events at said audience that sends them on a roller coaster of highs and lows, shows both main characters at their best and worst, and also pulls everything together with almost no words. Everyone in the crew increases their game as well, which is impressive, as this was a slick movie before - the photography gets a bit more perfect, the cutting (thankfully) doesn't keep up with the blistering pace Andrew sets, but still has an almost musical rhythm, which means that the flourishes used feel like performance themselves. The sound mixing is masterful, seldom obscuring the music but helping to put the audience in Andrew's shoes.

It's a virtuoso performance by all involved, making for a movie that is not just exciting for the story it tells but the way that story is told. It's flashy enough that it's easy to miss the solid foundation, but it's there - Chazelle gets almost everything right, and does it with a style that won't soon be forgotten.

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