In any other year, Birdman would – with its unavoidable percussive score – win the Oscar for most drumming in a dramatic feature. This season we are, however, also treated to a bravura debut that treats the drum kit as a theatre of war.
A year after its triumphant debut at the Sundance Film Festival, Damien Chazelle's thrilling film should rattle viewers out of any lingering new-year torpor. Whiplash is not always free of clichés. It tackles the jazz tradition from sometimes-unhelpful angles. But here we have a film so infused with sweaty energy that the temptation to draw comparisons with a bebop face-off proves (as you can see) close to irresistible.
A dedicated Miles Teller plays Andrew, a young drummer honing his paradiddles at a respected New York conservatory. Early on, he realises that the seat most worth having is that at the back of the band mentored by Terence Fletcher (Simmons).
The teacher initially comes across as a robust rogue, but Andrew soon realises that he is sufficiently unforgiving to terrify even the most cacophonous Sergeant Major. He flings chairs about the room. He plays one student against another. He refuses to merely shout when he has the opportunity to bellow.
We have seen these relationships before. Fletcher is Mr Miyagi in The Karate Kid. He's Anne Sullivan in The Miracle Worker. He's Splinter in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The teacher will be tough – even cruel – to his student, but all this is required to achieve excellence. At the end they will achieve a kind of rough harmony.
Hold your horses. Whiplash soon deviates from the pattern and, in a final, surprising showdown, allows Fletcher to emerge as something more sinister than we might have expected. In the usual pattern, the mentor is either a heavily disguised humanitarian (think of Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby) or a shallow automaton marching to one loud beat (consider R Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket). But, when we dig through Fletcher's unlovely exterior, we find further levels of malignity within. Vengeance is as important a driving force as is the desire for perfection.
Far too often an experienced actor wins his or her belated Oscar for the wrong performance (JK was at 1/6 even before the nominations were announced). Simmons has been due such a part for three decades and he is not the sort of man to let it pass unmolested. Looking fit and muscular in scene-changer black, Simmons allows his usual hints of warmth – even his J Jonah Jameson slapped the odd back – to fall away as he creates a monster of spite and misused charisma. Shot and edited in jolts and jerks, the duels over the drum kit seem to have more at stake than mere musical excellence. Teller surges on waves of effort throughout.
Unfortunately, there is an earnestness and a formality to the milieu that makes the music seem a little fossilised. Fletcher references Charlie Parker as he urges Andrew to ever-greater diligence. Has he forgotten that, rather than studiously perfecting an established music through scholarly rehearsal, Bird devised radical, hitherto unheard sounds while drifting towards a chemically accelerated death? In Whiplash, the great standards of mid-20th century jazz – notably Duke Ellington's Caravan – have become just that: standards to be studied like five-finger exercises. This is still a story about working hard, doing your best and otherwise being a good American.
None of which serves to scupper the experience in any significant way. Though there is some waffle about a girlfriend and Andrew does go among a confused family, Whiplash properly comes alive in the hermetic conflicts between drummer and teacher. Few relationships in recent cinema have been quite so compelling. Bring a welder's mask to ward off sparks.