‘Whiplash’ presents look at a hellacious road to perfection

J.K. Simmons is one of those people whose face everyone knows, but whose name may elude many. Even his most high-profile exposure, in a series of State Farm Insurance commercials, he plays a character we all have grown to recognize. But what is his name?

For the record, his name in the State Farm commercials is Prof. Nathaniel Burke.

Simmons has had a career dating back to 1994 in mostly supporting roles but has added his special touch in fleshing out some memorable characters such as Vern Schilliger in “Oz,” Dr. Emil Skoda in several “Law & Order” episodes, J. Jonah Jameson in the “Spider-Man” films as well as other upcoming Marvel adventures, and Assistant Chief Will Hope in “The Closer.”

Now Simmons is being mentioned as a possible Academy Award nominee for his work in “Whiplash.” As Terrence Fletcher, Simmons puts on a command performance, one in which every second he is on the screen he keeps the audience riveted with his unpredictable behavior.

“Whiplash” is the story of Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller), a first-year student at one of the most prestigious musical academies in the nation, located in Manhattan. Andrew is a jazz drummer who aspires to achieve the status reserved for the likes of Buddy Rich.

One day while practicing the drums on his own, Andrew is visited by Fletcher, the most renowned, and feared, teacher at the academy. Fletcher sets up the parameters of this teacher-student relationship by asking Andrew to do a specific piece of percussion work, then in the middle of the performance walks away, as if disinterested.

Later, however, Fletcher tells Andrew to report to the practice studio of the school’s highly regarded jazz band that under Fletcher’s guidance has a reputation for winning competitions. Andrew arrives and learns he is to be, initially, the back-up drummer for the group.

It is at these practice sessions that Fletcher is most volatile. Simmons’ portrayal of Fletcher has been likened to that of  R. Lee Ermey’s Gunner Sgt. Hartman in “Full Metal Jacket,” a man who is unrelenting and vicious in molding his charges into the toughest of the tough. Fletcher is a master at keeping the musicians on full alert. His facial expressions give nothing away. He may appear to be satisfied with the performances but in a flash can blow up and deliver vile, confidence-bashing tirades, or even resort to throwing things.

Fletcher has three words that all of his students dread to hear because when he says it, they know they are in for difficult time. Those three words are “not my tempo.” He is a stickler for the musicians to be in lock with his tempo and has such a gifted ear he can detect within seconds if the tempo is wrong.

He is cruel with his sharp criticisms and insults, and praise never comes from his lips. An approving nod is all the students will get if he is pleased.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle based “Whiplash” on his own experiences in a band led by a man who intimidated him. Initially, because he lacked finances, Chazelle filmed “Whiplash” as a short that he submitted in the short-film category at the Sundance Film Festival. It won the Jury Award and funding came through for Chazelle to make it a feature-length movie.

Teller, an accomplished drummer, turns in a credible performance as Andrew, a disciplined young man who wavers but never gives up despite the driving force of Fletcher with his mixed signals and unyielding demand for perfection.

“Whiplash” is a study of two people, one a master who honestly believes his methods are justified to mold musicians into true artists, the other an impassioned young person already driven to succeed who goes even further, willing to sacrifice a promising relationship with a young woman, Nicole (Melissa Benoist from “Glee”), to achieve his goals.

Under Chazelle’s direction, there are some intense scenes of Fletcher cracking a verbal whip, driving his students to exhaustion — and in the the case of the drummers, bloodied hands — never letting up until they reach their full potential. Even then, a simple mistake can result in any of the musicians being mercilessly ridiculed and degraded by Fletcher.

People who had their own experiences as musicians, dealing with stern teachers, will identify with “Whiplash,” although they may concede that Fletcher’s behavior is extreme.

The camera work during some of the performance scenes is impeccable, and fans of jazz will savor the moments of cool music, especially as a respite from the grueling exercises Fletcher puts his students through in the pursuit of perfection.

 

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