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'Whiplash' Sends an Electrifying Jolt

J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller rivet as a demon teacher and his driven student

Rating: R

Run time: 1 hour 46 minutes

Stars: Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser, J.K. Simmons, Miles Teller

Director: Damien Chazelle

Whiplash is not your traditional music-conservatory drama — the kind where a fractured orchestra learns to play as one in heartening, soft-focus montage. Instead it's the jazz version of Patton.

Presented in an intensely aggressive way reminiscent of that 1970 Best Picture winner, Whiplash drums home the dangers of trying to turn a young virtuoso into the next Buddy Rich. As a fledgling director clearly on the road to greatness himself, Damien Chazelle knocks out sharp, super-crisp camera work perfectly syncopated to his subject matter: ferocious talent meets tyrannical authority. And as a fledgling screenwriter, that same Damien Chazelle delivers a script that raises disturbing questions about how far aspirants and their mentors should go in the quest for excellence.

As an actor's showcase, Whiplash spotlights a pair of phenomenal performances by 27-year-old Miles Teller (Divergent) and veteran character actor J.K. Simmons, whose name you don't know but whose beaming face and bald head are buried in your subconscious from his roles in Juno, Law & Order and seven seasons as Kyra Sedgwick's exasperated boss on The Closer.

(Once audiences get a load of Simmons in Whiplash, if you ask me, the label "Best Actor nominee" will replace "character actor.")

Simmons portrays Terence Fletcher, leader of the accomplished jazz ensemble at the best music school in New York. His approach goes way beyond drill sergeant: He hurls sexist, homophobic and sadistic taunts — to say nothing of the occasional metal band chair — at his young charges in the twisted belief that fear and humiliation are ideal instructional aids. "No words in the English language are more dangerous than 'Good job!' " he says. We're a long way from Mr. Holland's Opus here, but Simmons tackles this persona with a taut fearlessness that will take your breath away.

Teller, as 19-year-old Andrew Neyman, is heartbreakingly raw — a shy but ambitious drummer (Teller plays in real life, too) whom Fletcher sniffs out as having the drive — a drive for which he'll shed not just sweat and tears but blood.

The fact that his father (Paul Reiser) longed to be a writer but settled for teaching high school makes Andrew easy prey for the charismatic and manipulative Fletcher, who knows just how to take advantage of a budding artist's thirst for renown.

That may sound like a full score, but Chazelle also manages to weave in a couple of charming subplots. One centers on the relationship between Andrew and his dad; they still go to the movies together, sharing the sort of bond that often grows between single fathers and their sons. (Mom disappeared when Andrew was a kid.) The other involves Melissa Benoist (the undersung Marley Rose from Glee), who plays Andrew's first love interest. The blossoming of their relationship feels organic, even when Andrew tells her he must break things off because drumming is his life.

A riveting display of dramatic artistry, Whiplash is also going to have a huge WCF (Water Cooler Factor). Get any two colleagues together and it won't be long before they name a boss, coach or teacher who consistently crossed the line between motivation and abuse. Hmm … is there a Terence Fletcher in your life?

Meg Grant is West Coast editor of AARP The Magazine.

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