Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash starts as it means to go on, with the insistent percussion of drumstick slapping tautly stretched skin. Rarely can a film’s pulse rate have been so closely tied to its soundtrack: in scene after scene of this enthralling melodrama, the dramatic beats-per-minute rise from steady to elevated to downright berserk. By the finale, the time scheme has become roughly equivalent to that of hypertensive blood pressure; the whole film seems to be going into seizure.
Our little drummer boy is Andrew (Miles Teller), a freshman at an elite New York conservatory; the quasi-masturbatory act of bashing something out is just about the only means this shy and sensitive soul has of expressing himself. He soon catches the eye of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), an uncompromising instructor – some might say asshole – who immediately sets about toughening this milksop up: he gives him a chance, thus some confidence, and begins to mould Andrew into his own aggressive, foul-mouthed image. We can only hope the lad catches himself before he starts beating up on others.
Nothing’s guaranteed, not least as he’s having to pull away from one of the most compelling martinets the cinema has recently given us. Simmons came to prominence as the white supremacist Vern Schillinger on TV’s underheralded Oz, where he succeeded in humanising a character who was, by any conventional definition, a nasty piece of work. Some of that cock-of-the-walk fascism factors into this, the actor’s most substantial big-screen role.
Dressed all in black, Fletcher’s something like a jazz Nazi: watching Fletcher berate an unfortunate trombonist during an early rehearsal, you may well be reminded of R. Lee Ermey’s drill instructor picking on poor Vincent d’Onofrio in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. He’s terrifying, yet – like Andrew – we can’t help but show up for another dressing down, and gulp every time somebody misses a beat.
That last comparison only points up how crazy-absurd Whiplash is. Chazelle is attempting to wrest the conservatory’s essentially cloistered and scholarly business away from Glee and reposition it closer to Raging Bull. This camera is always in the characters’ faces, seeing what they’re made of: Teller, who starts out resembling a cow-country John Cusack, sweats so much through the frenzied practice scenes you can actually see his jaw firming up, getting steelier. When Andrew finally snaps and puts a fist through his snare drum, it’s the equivalent of de Niro punching a brick wall.
Chazelle’s feat is to make all the one-on-ones work, in such a way that it doesn’t matter how pumped up everything else is: the character beats underpinning even his wildest flourishes are metronomically sound. He’s particularly sharp around Andrew’s family: you can see why this kid might be drawn to Fletcher, when his own dad (Paul Reiser) is a nice but weak-willed sort who apologises when someone jostles him in a cinema, and can’t speak up for his boy when he’s overshadowed at dinner by a jock cousin.
Given Andrew’s hardening palms and spirit, perhaps it’s inevitable he should screw up his promising liaison with the blue-eyed belle he woos over the popcorn counter (Melissa Benoist, another – smart – grab from Glee), but Chazelle also gives us a scene in a late-night jazz bar that nails the awkwardness of encountering a teacher after class; it allows Simmons to make a case for his character, without losing sight of how pompous Terence Fletcher really is.
Dotted carefully throughout are dark mutterings of musicians who committed suicide, convinced they weren’t good enough to make the grade – and Chazelle does get us believing that this formative passage in his protagonist’s life is as much death or glory as any film to involve a WW2 bootcamp; that, on some level, Andrew is playing for his life.
It sounds ridiculous, but that’s the film for you: a pop version of The Piano Teacher that deals in exactly the heightened discipline and morbid control Haneke was fascinated by, but which instead builds – after some paradiddles of its own – towards a rare and irresistible form of release. By Whiplash’s concluding crescendo – the biggest finish of any movie released this or any other year – it’s all you can do not to rise to your feet and cheer.
Whiplash screens on BBC2 tonight at 11.20pm.