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This. Sick. Beat: A Teacher Abuses His Power Over a Drummer in ‘Whiplash’

‘Whiplash’ is ostensibly about the relationship of a jazz teacher and a student in pursuit of greatness. But it’s really about something else.

Officially, Damien Chazelle’s blistering commercial thriller, Whiplash, is about obsession and perfection in the jazz world. Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) wants to be a great drummer. He practices intensely and incessantly, forgoes a relationship with a girl, listens fanatically to Buddy Rich. One of Andrew’s instructors at an elite fictional Manhattan conservatory takes his own obsession with perfection out on his students. Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) barks things like, “That is not your boyfriend’s dick. Don’t come early.” The audience laughs. The kids seated in the rehearsal room don’t. He hurls a chair at Andrew and makes him play until his hands bleed. The fury in Fletcher’s rants is exhilarating, but they’re tantrums disguised as the demands of perfection.

Early in the film, Fletcher barges into a different instructor’s classroom and plucks Andrew to play in his competition band. The other kids look surprised: He’s been chosen? Fletcher had already seen him play in the film’s hypnotic opening tracking shot. The scene starts at one end of the hallway, but Andrew’s drumming draws in the camera, which whips around to reveal Fletcher in the doorway. He wants to see what Andrew’s got: “Faster. Faster.” Andrew tries, but the camera spins around again and catches a slamming door. That sequence perfectly sets the table for the film’s actual subject: the symbiosis of abuse. Fletcher is looking for a kid who can withstand the difference between being broken in and broken down.

Chazelle is pilfering from Scorsese, but meaningfully, star-makingly. He’s one of a tiny few American directors to come out from under all of that influence and to speak in a new, original language. Whiplash adopts a psychotic sense of doom, similar to what coursed through Taxi Driver, a film about narcissism, unraveling sanity, and also a sort of societal collapse. But it also has the zoom and instability of Scorsese’s too-infrequently praised work from the mid-1980s, like The King of Comedy. Chazelle adds a layer of personal need and neediness.

This is his second feature (he’s not even 30). His first, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, was a studied black-and-white, French New Wave, interracial romance/musical-school musical that was also under the influence of John Cassavetes. Its film-program realism was offset by a kind of artistic assiduousness. He wasn’t toying with allusions. He was looking for a voice. With Whiplash, he’s found it. The first movie was self-consciously swoony. This new one operates at a higher voltage. It could have taken place in a handful of other fields (war and sports are common, not-unreasonable comparisons). But for Chazelle, the rarefied 21st-century jazz conservatory environment presents a landscape still full of young talent and old, poised among self-congratulation, self-preservation, and true artistic abandon.

Fletcher defends his violent mind games as critical for the survival of jazz. He claims he’s trying to find the next Charlie Parker. To explain himself, he tells a story about a cymbal thrown at a middling Parker — the moment, Fletcher says, that turned Parker into the legendary Bird. In Fletcher’s worldview, his rants aren’t evil. They’re an expression of his devotion to ornithology. Simmons delivers this monologue plain as day, in a jazz club. You hear it and think, as a friend of mine did, of Ahab and his psychotic pursuit of that elusive whale. Of course, Fletcher’s hunt for another Parker is a myth, too, a pretext to throw shit at people. But for it to seem real, only one other person is required to buy into it, and Andrew is that person. Something in him would rather chase Fletcher than do anything that might hold him back. Fletcher makes him cry, and he likes it.

This is a far more convincing depiction of an abusive relationship than David Fincher’s Gone Girl. But both movies, as well as the relationship between Hannah and Adam on Girls, have fascinatingly inside-out ideas about victimhood. In one of Whiplash’s climaxes (there are at least three), Fletcher rounds up three drummers to compete for a spot that each of them thought he already had. It’s a grueling sequence, strong enough to reduce an audience to tearful shock. A lot of the shock comes from how desperate each guy is to kill himself in order to be the sole object of Fletcher’s sadism. The movies tend to see this dynamic as an exercise in reaching a boiling point, at which the abused walks out on (or kills) the abuser. But sometimes you get a film that luxuriates in the perverse gray area, something like the sadomasochism of Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, which was built around a devastatingly great performance by Isabelle Huppert as a sexually repressed pianist obsessed with a cruel student. In Haneke’s, the mother is a not-entirely-passive participant in her daughter’s struggle with herself; they’ve been sharing a bed for who knows how long. Each of these movies (and Girls) roots the psychosexual dynamic partly in parental relationships. (Andrew’s mother has left his father, a failed but contented novelist who teaches high school writing.) Chazelle’s film is different from the others. Its blood is hot; it’s got a manic, coked-up verve. But all of this work about suffering, struggling artists feels more documented than metaphorical.

It’s smart of Simmons to play the part the way he does. He always sheds his blazer and porkpie hat to reveal the same combination of a black T-shirt tucked into black pants. His head is bald, and the lines on his face are like a piece of angry sheet music. The shirt is tight enough so that his tight arms are visible. When Fletcher puts up his arm to stop the band from playing something he doesn’t like, he grabs the air with such force that each time you swear his hand is full of sizzling molecules. Alex Pappademas has called Simmons a walking erection. When Fletcher blasts into a room, the students rise involuntarily, returning the favor. This is a variation of the cruel-daddy acting previously done by men like Adolph Caesar, Louis Gossett Jr., and R. Lee Ermey. Simmons turns up the volume and gives the violence swaggering elegance, some sex. It’s a lure that works.

I’m not sure Andrew even knows what it is about Fletcher he’s responding to. Teller plays both the loathing and roiling need. He reserves his usual charisma for the drum kit. He’s made a handful of movies — he was note-perfect in his debut in a single remorseful scene with Nicole Kidman in Rabbit Hole, hitting a walk-off the way Viola Davis did in her one big scene in Doubt. Otherwise, he’s been making a name as a smart-ass, caddish lug in everything from The Spectacular Now to his small part in the Divergent movies. This is more concentrated acting. Teller’s got a boxer’s face in Whiplash. There’s swelling around his nose and mild but evident scarring near his chin and on his neck. Give or take a lack of roundness (he always looks taller and thinner than I remember), it’s the same face from That Awkward Moment, 21 & Over, and that Footloose remake from a couple of years ago, but only Whiplash allows you to notice the negligible defects. Teller ought to look like he can take a punch. The movie swings — physically, musically, psychologically, racially.

The first time I saw the film, the finale, preposterous as it is, almost made me leap out of my seat (Chazelle can end a movie). But it bothered me that he had given us a jazz thriller about two white guys in which most of the non-drummers are of color and, hilariously, more or less indifferent to the interpersonal drama that’s hijacked the band. He does seem to have anticipated the misgivings with his version of this world. As an instructor, Fletcher barrels through the jazz world self-entitled to uphold its traditions at any cost. As a musician, he appears gentler (and less flagrantly attired) playing the piano with a style that’s not setting the art form ablaze. The class from which he absconds with Andrew is taught by a black guy who just steps out of the way, seemingly aware of the deal. Fletcher’s probably had to prove himself, and this is how, as a well-intentioned tyrant. Does Wynton Marsalis, whose name Fletcher drops, know Fletcher teaches this way? Has the school done anything to stop him? Chazelle’s almost allegorical ideas don’t leave a lot of room for administrative procedure.

Of course, another way to keep jazz going is currently playing in theaters. Keep On Keepin On is Alan Hicks’s moving, observant documentary about the relationship between the ailing 93-year-old legend and master trumpeter Clark Terry and Justin Kauflin, a blind pianist Terry successfully mentored. The movie is very much about Terry’s devotion to serious practitioners of the art form and their devotion to him. It shows how Terry’s health weighs on his wife, Gwen.

But neither she nor the film turns pitying. Instead, Kauflin presents reminders of Terry’s former brilliance, arguing that it’s contagious. Chazelle’s film is about the toxicity of certain teaching approaches and some students’ need for the abuse; Fletcher’s students are just as abusive to each other as he is to them. The documentary is more sanguine about pedagogy. Kauflin is white (so is Hicks, another Terry disciple); Terry is black. But the movie leaves you with the sense that it doesn’t matter with whom the music lives as long as it lives. No blood and tears required.