J.K. Simmons won a Golden Globe for his performance in “Whiplash” as the music teacher from hell.
The 59-year-old actor has appeared in more than 50 movies and many TV hits, but he’s best known as the matter-of-fact professor in comic Farmer’s Insurance commercials. In “Whiplash,” Simmons moves far beyond being to the point. And there’s nothing funny in Simmons’ portrayal of Terence Fletcher, an abusive teacher at an elite music conservatory. Fletcher bullies his studio band students to competition victories.
After school hours, Fletcher’s predator eyes and ears spot Andrew Neyman, an ambitious, 19-year-old drummer, practicing alone in the dark. When the great music teacher tells Andrew to show him the fundamentals, Andrew is surprised and delighted. Fletcher’s status and reputation precede him. But then, and just as abruptly, Fletcher leaves the room. No encouraging words. No goodbye. No nothing. Andrew is puzzled and deflated.
It won’t be the first time Fletcher plays Andrew. Later, Fletcher blows into a band rehearsal room where Andrew and his peers are working with another instructor. “Room B-16, tomorrow morning, 6 a.m.,” Fletcher tells Andrew. “Don’t be late.”
Andrew scrambles to get there the next morning. But no one else, neither students nor Fletcher, arrives until 9 a.m.
Miles Teller co-stars as Andrew, a sincere young man who’s been playing drums since childhood. Andrew works hard. He wants to be one of the greats. At first Teller portrays Andrew as an open-faced, eager-to-learn student. The hypercompetitive, poisonous environment Fletcher creates changes that.
“Whiplash” writer-director Damien Chazelle based the film on personal experience. He studied drums at the conservatory-level during high school. Fear of his ensemble’s conductor, terror at the thought of making mistakes plagued him.
“Whiplash” magnifies the common fear and insecurities young musicians or aspiring artists in any naturally discipline have. The monstrously obsessive Fletcher wields a soul-destroying psychological whip. He’s gets physical, too.
Chazelle conducts this harsh story about ambition and obsession. It’s punishing for characters and audience alike. No one could be blamed for thinking pedagogy of the kind practiced by Fletcher is more about torture than enlightenment. Nonetheless, the director sprinkles doubt into the script and allows the beastly Fletcher, as expertly expressed by the wry Simmons, explain himself.
“Whiplash” is daring, hand-to-the throat storytelling. Not comfortable viewing, but as anyone who’s tried to make something beautiful or exceptional knows, it takes blood, sweat and tears.