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Senior Correspondent

‘Whiplash’: Monster Mentor

‘Whiplash’: Monster Mentor

Photo by Daniel McFadden – © Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) conducts the elite studio jazz band at New York City’s most prestigious conservatory of music. He’s a musician and educator, though you might be forgiven for mistaking him for a Marine drill instructor — or perhaps a serial killer.

Fletcher enters the rehearsal room with the swagger of a gunslinger flinging open swinging saloon doors. His students don’t make eye contact. They gaze at the floor or at their charts. Nobody wants to draw the alpha wolf’s reptilian stare.

But that won’t save them. Fletcher is routinely profane, insulting, and capable of reducing a young musician to sobs. He seems to take great pleasure in finding a victim at every rehearsal.

“Either you're out of tune and deliberately sabotaging my band, or you don’t know you’re out of tune — and that’s worse.”

He's smug, cruel and probably sexist, given his treatment of a woman player in a freshman ensemble: “You’re in first chair. Let’s see if it’s just because you’re cute.”

He punishes those who disappoint him not with pushups but with rehearsals that go on into the wee hours.

Thing is, Fletcher knows his stuff. He can listen to a dozen musicians playing all at once and immediately pick out the instrument that’s just a bit sharp or flat. He has an uncanny ear and makes brilliant choices in material.  Which is why his studio band cleans up at competitions year after year.

Think "The Paper Chase's" John Houseman on steroids. Or Bobby Knight with a conducting baton.

Watching Simmons (a terrific actor who played Juno’s father but is, ironically, known to most folks as the "professor" in the Farmers Insurance TV spots) sink his teeth into this impossibly meaty part is one of the great satisfactions of "Whiplash." But he’s only half the equation.

Squaring off agains him is Miles Teller (of last year’s excellent "The Spectacular Now") as new student Andrew Neiman, a drummer with dreams of musical greatness.

Andrew has a sweet face and puppy dog sad eyes, and he appears to be friendless.  He devotes most his waking moments to practicing until his hands are blistered and bloody. When he isn’t clutching drumsticks he’s listening to the masters, especially the legendary drummer and bandleader Buddy Rich, a musical genius who ranted against his players.

So when Andrew is tapped by the legendary Fletcher to move up to the studio band — even if it means he spends most of his time turning pages of music for the first-chair drummer — he feels he is well and truly on his way.

He has no idea.

At first “Whiplash” — written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who expanded his short film of the same title — looks like a lopsided affair. Simmons is such a seething cauldron of misanthropy that it seems impossible that Teller, as the quiet and deferential Andrew, could possibly hold his own.

Think again. The more we see of Andrew, the more it becomes clear that beneath that gentle facade is another snarling animal clawing its way to the top.

We get hints of how driven he is in his fierce practice sessions, where he plays the same drumroll for hours, gradually increasing and decreasing the speed. We cheer when the girl-shy Andrew strikes up a relationship with another student (Melissa Benoist of TV's "Glee"), but then he drops her because any sort of attachment is a distraction from his single-minded quest.

And just when you think that Fletcher has triumphed, that he has weeded out the desperate Andrew as unworthy, the film turns into a fascinating Ping Pong match of revenge, humiliating retaliation, and ultimate triumph.

Chazelle perfectly captures the aura of competitiveness and seediness at a top-range conservatory (love the well-worn wood floors and the blue-ish flourescent glow), and the film’s musical passages are killer (Teller appears to be doing his own drumming; if so, he may be an even better percussionist than actor).

“Whiplash” (that’s also the title of a fiendishly difficult jazz composition Andrew must master) is the acting version of MMA. We’re talking hand-to-hand, down-and-dirty emoting that is nothing short of thrilling.

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