Whiplash (2014)

(On Cable TV, August 2014)  Anyone could be forgiven, after reading a short summary of Whiplash’s plot (“Student Jazz Musician tries to prove himself to demanding teacher”) that this would be a relatively sedate and dull affair, somewhere along the lines of a musical Good Will Hunting.  But that would be a terrible mistake, because Whiplash tells a musical coming-of-age drama with the tempo of an action movie.  Miles Teller is pretty good as the student willing to sacrifice just about everything in order to become a great musician, but J.K. Simmons is stellar as his nemesis, a teacher who thinks that developing a great musician or worth the worst methods imaginable.  His performance is Whiplash’s biggest special effect – a blend of meanness, bad temper, outright machiavelism and unapologetic righteousness.  Much of his character’s complexity is reflected elsewhere in the tight script, which delivers a deceptive triumph of an ending with implications that aren’t as triumphant as you may think.  Otherwise, the music sounds great even to untrained jazz listeners, the editing is spectacularly good and Damien Chazelle’s direction is effective without being showy.  The ending is terrific and caps off a film with very little padding.  (In fact, as the mystery of the missing folder suggests, it may even miss a bit of connective narrative.)  Whiplash, in other words, is a surprisingly good film, a more-than-worthy Oscar nominee, and a memorable viewing experience.  Who knew you could care so much about a drum solo?

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