Simmons (left) plays a monstrous musician.
If Birdman borrowed a cup of energy from its drum score, then Whiplash, about a young jazz drummer at a cutthroat conservatory, steals a whole quart. I'm not sure the movie would work if it were about a soprano sax player studying smooth and mellow fare. The story's too thin, and it requires all that pounding of the skins to give it muscle.
Socially maladroit and painfully single-minded, freshman Andrew (Miles Teller) lives only to drum, not out of pleasure, necessarily, but to be anointed the next Buddy Rich. Early on, an instructor named Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) invites the young student to join his elite competition band. Fletcher is a legendary monster, but he knows how to seduce this dewy-eyed hopeful. He makes nice with Andrew, propping him up with talk of nascent genius and asking about his family, only to use that information to publicly humiliate the young musician, ostensibly to goad him to be better.
Andrew does get better. He gets great, actually, and he wears his bloodied paws like badges of honor, even as he shudders when his alpha barks. The band at large is only glanced at, but writer-director Damien Chazelle (Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench) cannily conveys the cycle of abuse. Fletcher's ensemble hardly makes eye contact with him. Still, they're quick to mimic his top-down brutality.
Ultimately, Chazelle isn't interested in the long lens. He's tightly fixated on master and supplicant, each with his own agenda, and the film is essentially one long cockfight. After his debut as a shattered penitent in Rabbit Hole, Teller has made a career out of being the snarkiest guy in the room. It's startling, and maybe a setback, to see him play such a dope here. Andrew is a youngling, and despite all his sweaty aerobics, he's not all that interesting to watch. Simmons has a face you might chisel into rock, and he's endlessly fascinating in motion. But again, does Chazelle have anything unique to say about this raging megalomaniac? The leads' sparring is entertaining while it lasts, but in the end, it simply isn't moving enough.