If you've ever sat in a jazz club or concert and thought the band was just riffing the night away with nary a care in the world, "Whiplash" should whip that feeling out of you faster than a really up-tempo drum solo.
Rarely has a movie shown so viscerally the utter pain that can accompany the bliss of creating good music. And, in the case of the aspiring jazz drummer at the center of "Whiplash," played by the fast-rising Miles Teller ("The Spectacular Now," ''Divergent"), we mean physical pain as well as mental: We're talking chafed, bleeding fingers leaking droplets onto the cymbals, the blood mixing with sweat, and yes, some tears, too.
The engaging Teller, whose boyish, upbeat demeanor always seems to be suggesting something darker and more desperate underneath, is just one of the reasons "Whiplash" is such an engrossing film. Another is the ingenuity of writer-director Damien Chazelle, who, in only his second full-length film, is clearly working from the heart, having played jazz drums himself in high school.
And the third is the wonderful J.K. Simmons — you've seen him in everything from "Spider-Man" to "Juno" to "Burn Before Reading," but you've never seen him burn through the screen like this, savoring the role of a lifetime as a teacher who inspires, terrifies, bullies and downright abuses, in ways that leave you wondering whether you should call 911 from your seat.
It's a fascinating student-teacher dynamic — though often excruciating to watch — and it allows Chazelle to raise the question not only of how much one should suffer for one's art, but also what makes us truly learn. Is it encouragement, pressure, or pain? Is it joy, or is it fear?
Teller plays Andrew Neiman, a 19-year-old student at a top conservatory. He longs to play in the jazz ensemble led by Terence Fletcher (Simmons), a brilliant conductor who isn't averse to hurling out sexist and homophobic slurs, and heck, even hurling a chair at a player who can't quite capture the right tempo.
But Andrew, who dreams of Buddy Rich -like greatness, is thrilled when Fletcher invites him in. He's caught the teacher's attention. He's on the rise.
Or so he thinks. But Fletcher is one of those teachers who raises you up just to cut you down. There are many movies where a hard-charging teacher — think John Houseman in "The Paper Chase" — runs roughshod over a student, only to make the student better at the end, and you know that's where you're going. But here, we have no idea where we we're going. Andrew could end up lying insane in a gutter, for all we know.
Andrew isn't wholly a victim here. His dreams of greatness grow into an obsession. His early success emboldens him to ask the sweet young woman at the movie-theater counter on a date; this adorable scene makes full use of Teller's uneasy bravado. But then he sabotages their budding relationship with his limitless ambition.
Andrew's no picnic for his family, either. He's dismissive of his dad (Paul Reiser, sensitive in a small role) for having abandoned dreams of being a writer.
It all comes to a head on the high-pressure stages of musical competition — but this ain't "Glee." No smiles, hugs or happy mashups. The final act will test just how demonic Fletcher can be, and just how far Andrew will go to be great.
It's here that things hit a bit of a snag, alas, with a rather melodramatic plot twist. Though it contains some cool drumming (Teller does his own, the result of many hours of lessons), the plot contortion strains credulity on several levels.
But by this point, Chazelle, Teller and Simmons have us so firmly in their grip on this weird and absorbing journey, we don't mind all that much. We'll riff along.
"Whiplash," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America "for strong language including some sexual references. Running time: 106 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.