Powered by a should-be-Oscar-winning performance by J.K. Simmons and some sharp editing, Whiplash manages to convince some viewers that there is a deep, meaningful movie about jazz drumming inside when it's actually little more than a wind-up monkey toy.
Miles Teller is a freshman at an elite New York music conservatory when he is plucked from his class to be part of Simmons' elite Studio Band. There he is subjected to the capricious tyranny of Simmons has he berates, humiliate and physically abuses the musicians. This is the first red flag Whiplash puts up: Why are these young people enduring this abuse? Does graduating from this band lead to fame and fortune? Has Simmons groomed a Buddy Rich, a Charlie Parker, a Wynton Marsalis or Miles Davis? We never know, but apparently it's So Very Important that they be in this band that they'll practice until their hands bleed, auditioning to perform a song for five-hours until their sweaty, trembling wrecks.
Outside of the rehearsal room, Teller is a blank. While Simmons asks how he came to want to be a drummer considering his parents weren't musical, he doesn't really have an answer. We see that his relatives aren't impressed as they fawn over their jock and NHS kids, but when he dumps his girlfriend (Melissa Benoist, soon to be TV's Supergirl, in a nothing role) because he feels she'll be a distraction to his musical pursuits, he doesn't come off as dedicated, but a dick.
The red flags eventually burst into flames in two passages which simply wouldn't happen in reality. The first is an insane series of events involving Teller trying to get to a competition that culminates in his bloody, battered butt being kicked out of the band. The other is the finale which simply couldn't happen because it involves totally career-ending unprofessional behavior from Simmons and the ridiculous premise that all will be resolved with a big wanky drum solo. (I wish I was kidding about this.)
There's a lot of pretension about how Whiplash examines whether genius needs nurturing by any means necessary and whether Simmons' dictatorial musical director is merely misguided in his best intentions, but in the words of Morrissey, he just hasn't earned it yet, baby. A pair of scenes are meant to humanize Simmons, but they're revealed to be wildly false. And that ending....whoo, yeah, no. It would've been more realistic if someone had shot the other than what happens.
So why the acclaim? Because Simmons absolutely KILLS IT as the tyrannical overlord. Simmons has been a long-respected character actor in various roles like his hilarious J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy, but he just delivers the goods with such darkly humorous ferocity that we don't notice just how ludicrous the scenarios are. Teller is buttermilk, but fakes the drumming well enough, but this is Simmons show. The editing by Tom Cross is kinetic, but coherent. Great editing makes directors look good; half of Scorsese's accolades should be shared with Thelma Schoonmaker, for instance.
Writer-director Damien Chazelle supposedly based Whiplash on his experiences as a jazz drummer with a mean teacher, but like so many movies about music, he doesn't convey what drives musicians. For some weird reason, movies about musicians made by musicians never seem to capture the vibe of being a musician. Prey For Rock & Roll, the Gina Gershon-starring movie about an all-female band, was written by Cheri Lovedog (guessing not the name on her birth certificate) and it comes off as a Lifetime movie while Tom Hanks' That Thing You Do somehow NAILS the band dynamic despite, as far as I know, Hanks having no musical background.
Whiplash isn't a terrible movie like many of this year's wildly overrated Best Picture nominees are, but it's not that exceptional beyond the aforementioned performance and editing. Just like drumming in general, there's a not of banging going on here, but very rarely does it sing.
Score: 7/10. Rent the DVD.