Romantic ideals meet hard truth in "Whiplash," Damien Chazelle's crackling drama about an ambitious young jazz drummer and his sadistic teacher. Though essentially a two-man play set primarily in a rehearsal studio, "Whiplash" roils like its Hank Levy title track, simmers like a thriller and brims with ideas about art, genius and suffering. It's a jazzy, snazzy, bloody good second feature from 29-year-old writer-director Chazelle ("Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench").
"Whiplash" focuses on Andrew Neiman, a teenage drumming prodigy played by Miles Teller ("The Spectacular Now") with a pitch-perfect mix of arrogance and insecurity. Hungry for greatness and glory, Neiman spends hours pounding the skins until his own turns raw. Neither friends nor family (Paul Reiser plays his concerned father) will distract him. A quote from his idol, the legendary Buddy Rich, graces Neiman's bedroom wall: "If you don't practice, you end up in a rock band."
At Manhattan's Shaffer Conservatory of Music (a fictionalized Juilliard or Berklee), Neiman gets precisely what he deserves in Terence Fletcher, a tyrannical band conductor played with gusto by J.K. Simmons ("Juno"). Fletcher's teaching methods include sarcasm, humiliation, racist slurs and, when all else fails, physical assault. In one of the film's most memorable scenes, Fletcher keeps tempo on Neiman's face. Student and teacher are a match made in hell, each determined to be the next half-mad genius of jazz.
Chazelle, who based "Whiplash" on his tenure in a high-school jazz orchestra, directs this small-scale movie with style, cutting and panning to the rhythms of zigzagging compositions like Duke Ellington's "Caravan." Sheet music scrolls across the screen with nightmarish speed, sweat crawls down young faces, cymbals glisten with blood. "There are no two words in the English language," says Fletcher, "more harmful than 'good job.' "
Plausibility goes out the window during the film's final act, as Fletcher and Neiman resort to increasingly drastic and somewhat improbable measures to get the best of each other. That hardly matters, though, when the film's emotional payoff feels so thrilling, so thematically perfect. From start to finish, "Whiplash" makes good on its title.