By Megan Bianco
After Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the next film to break out of Sundance at the beginning of this year and go on to wide success is Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash.” The basic plot of a drummer trying to succeed at a music conservatory might sound pretty pedestrian to the average viewer in theory.
But on screen, there’s some of the most brutal, unexpected tension of 2014. Casting indie actors and setting the characters around jazz, Chazelle’s pet project is the definition of a sleeper hit and then some.
During his first semester at the best music conservatory in the country, Andrew (Miles Teller) has his mind set on being the next great jazz drummer since Buddy Rich. Very quickly he becomes the alternate drummer in the class of the strictest professor in the school, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons).
Pushing everything else in life aside, Andrew now practices as hard as possible to be the core drummer in class. But no matter how much he drums, nothing seems to please Fletcher, to a scary degree.
“Glee’s” Melissa Benoist appears as Andrew’s girlfriend and Paul Reiser plays his dad. Based on a short film with the same title by Chazelle, which also features Simmons, the longer and newer version of “Whiplash” is up there with “Opening Night” (1977) and “Black Swan” (2010) as one of the most stress-ridden films about the entertainment world.
The brutal intensity of Chazelle’s direction and over-the-top scrutiny from Simmons makes the audience cringe and even wonder at certain points if this is reality, or a sick nightmare Andrew is experiencing. Simmons’ Fletcher is now added alongside Karl Malden in “Fear Strikes Out” (1957) and R. Lee Ermey in “Full Metal Jacket” (1987) as the one of the biggest hard-asses in movies.
Most might think of Teller for comedies like “Footloose” (2011) or “That Awkward Moment” (2014), but the young actor has already received critical notice for “Rabbit Hole” (2010) and last year’s “The Spectacular Now” (2013) in the indie community. Here he really comes into his own as a drummer who isn’t sure if he resents his mentor or wants his approval.
Actually trained in drumming in real life, Teller ups both his music and acting range here on an equally physical and emotional level. The viewer is constantly tempted to look away from Andrew’s very obvious struggle and pain. If Teller and Simmons are lucky enough, they should get Oscar nominations next February for their performances; and “Whiplash” should be acknowledged as one of the essential independent films of 2014.
Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.