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In 'Whiplash,' A Young Drummer Plays Till He Bleeds


This is FRESH AIR. The second feature by the 29-year-old director Damien Chazelle is called, "Whiplash" and centers on the agony of a drummer in a high-powered music school. The movie stars the young film actor Miles Teller from "The Spectacular Now" and J.K. Simmons, who is best known for his TV roles on "Law And Order" and "Oz." "Whiplash" won a grand prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: "Whiplash" charts the education and torture of ambitious, young drummer Andrew Nieman played by Miles Teller. The inflictor of pain is a teacher, Terence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons. Fletcher conducts the elite jazz band at the Manhattan Conservatory where Andrew is a student. Film has a long, dishonor role of sadistic authority figures. But few of them get as much of a charge as Fletcher out of messing with pupils' heads, even driving them from the school in tears. Writer-director Damien Chazelle has you wondering two things at once. Will Andrew succeed in wowing this most exacting of judges? And more important, what can be gained by doing so when the teacher is manifestly psychotic? There's also a larger question. Does the director finally vindicate Fletcher's methods, suggesting that only a harsh taskmaster can spur an artist like Andrew to the next level? Before I try to answer, let me say I love this movie. The title is dead-on. "Whiplash" twists you into knots. The fear of failure is omnipresent, but so, somehow, is the jazz vibe. When Andrew snatches up his sticks and the band launches into a standard, say Hank Levy's "Whiplash," it's hard not to smile and sway and tap your foot. Miles Teller does all the character's playing, so Chazelle doesn't have to hide his hands. Except for an occasional grimace, Teller's face is rapt. He's playing; he's not acting playing. He tells everyone he wants to be one of the greats. Long into the night, he thumps on his drums, blisters opening, blood smudging his sticks. When it's time to rehearse the band, Simmons' Fletcher materializes in the class doorway like a vampire. There's no fat on the actor. He's all sinew and teeth and bald dome. In one scene, outside class, he's warmly attentive to Andrew. He says, just relax; have fun. Then, Andrew sits down to play.


J.K. SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Five, six, seven.


SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Not quite my tempo. It's all good, no worries. Here we go. (Clapping) Five, six, seven.


SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) You're rushing. Here we go. Ready? OK. (Clapping) Fix, six, and...


SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Dragging just a hair.


SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Wait for my cue. (Clapping) Five, six, seven.


SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Rushing. (Clapping) Five, six, and...


SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Dragging. (Clapping) Five, six, and...


SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Why do you suppose I just hurled a chair at your head, Nieman?

MILES TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) I don't know.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Sure you do.

TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) The tempo?

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Were you rushing or were you dragging?

TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) I don't know.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Start counting.

TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) Five, six, seven.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher, yelling) In four, damn it. Look at me.

TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) One, two, three, four (Fletcher slapping Nieman). One, two, three four (Fletcher slapping Nieman). One, two, three four (Fletcher slapping Nieman).

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Now, was I rushing or was I dragging?

TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) I don't know.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher) Count again.

TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) One, two, three (Fletcher slapping Nieman). One, two, three (Fletcher slapping Nieman). One, two, three (Fletcher slapping Nieman).

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher, yelling) Rushing or dragging?

TELLER: (As Andrew Nieman) Rushing.

SIMMONS: (As Terence Fletcher, yelling) So you do know the difference.

EDELSTEIN: Hearing Fletcher slap Andrew across the face, I'm having traumatic flashbacks. What about that question whiplash poses? Does Andrew, on some level, need a bad authority figure? His dad, played by Paul Reiser, is a mild presence who loves Andrew unconditionally, which is what we want from a parent, right? But Fletcher thinks to be great, you need abuse. He tells his class about the teenage Charlie Parker, who fled a jam after drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at him. Parker vowed to come back better - and did. I don't think director Chazelle has a tidy answer. When you listen to stories of great artists or athletes, you often hear how terribly their parents and coaches drove them and how that paid off. You also hear about people being destroyed psychologically and physically. I know a woman whose gorgeous soprano was ruined by an abusive teacher. A good dramatist doesn't need to reconcile the two sides, only bring them both to life. I do note Chazelle believes great art should cost the artist. At the end of his debut feature, the 2009 "Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench," the protagonist is on the verge of losing his lover and plays a long, increasingly desperate and discordant trumpet solo. He's pushing against the limits of his talent, maybe of his soul. Chazelle's heroes are artist existentialists. They create themselves anew every day. They beat the drums until they bleed.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Coming up, I review the new Showtime drama series "The Affair," which starts Sunday. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.