J. K. Simmons

Whiplash, Written and directed by Damien Chazelle. Starring J. K. Simmons, Miles Teller, and Paul Reiser. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics, 2014. Rated R for strong language, including some sexual references. Running time: 107 minutes.

Whiplash draws its title from the name of a pounding big band instrumental by Hank Levy. It is one of the pieces with which conductor Terence Fletcher (portrayed by J. K. Simmons, who won an Oscar for the role) either will destroy student drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) or inspire him to greatness.

Playing for Fletcher at New York’s prestigious Shaffer Conservatory is nightmarish. Fletcher is demanding to the point of inflicting emotional and physical abuse. He works students grueling hours and pits them against each other for position. At one point, he repeatedly slaps Neiman’s face, asking if he can keep time.

In short, Fletcher is an abusive jerk. He rationalizes his behavior by repeating anecdotes about other great musicians who suffered abuse and by claiming students won’t excel unless he pushes them. He is an easy man to hate.

Yet Fletcher does have a genuine love for jazz music and for leading musicians in great performances. To a point, Fletcher succeeds in driving his students to succeed. The problem is that he frequently pushes beyond that point and places his students at risk of emotional meltdown and physical harm.

Neiman tolerates Fletcher’s abuse because, whatever else might be said about Fletcher, he does know and love jazz music, and he strives for excellence in its performance. Neiman, already a hard worker, redoubles his efforts under Fletcher, often pushing himself to exhaustion and to bloodied fingers. . . .

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