J.K. Simmons in Whiplash
J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job,” declares Terence Fletcher, the viciously demanding jazz instructor in Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash. This sentiment doesn’t seem to have registered with critics, though, because Whiplash is one of the best-reviewed films of 2014. The lobby poster is chockablock with glowing blurbs and studded with the sort of gerunds that make publicists tremble: exhilarating . . . astounding . . . electrifying. Rotten Tomatoes (for whatever it’s worth) assigns the movie a positive score of 97 percent. “Even if you couldn’t care less about jazz drumming . . . Whiplash is a thrill to watch,” raves Dana Stevens in Slate. Chris Nashawaty echoes this sentiment in Entertainment Weekly: “You don’t have to be a jazz fan for Whiplash to zap you. . . . If you can appreciate the sight of two totally dialed-in performers simmering until they boil over, that’s enough. And P.S., that’s pretty much the definition of jazz.”

That’s not my definition of jazz, and in fact people who love the music may find Whiplash faintly offensive. Tracking the conflict between Fletcher—the sadistic, screaming, superhumanly precise conductor of a big band at a prestigious New York conservatory—and a dedicated, play-till-your-hands-bleed drumming student, Whiplash has less in common with the great jazz dramas (Robert Altman’s Kansas City, Bertrand Tavernier’s Round Midnight) than with a much more plentiful cultural commodity, the inspirational sports drama. In fact, one reason critics are going bananas for Whiplash may be that it transplants the rousing mechanisms of the sports drama to the world of conservatory music, providing highbrow cover for writers who might otherwise blanch at its macho formula of noble masochism and glorious self-realization.

I’ll give them one thing, though: Whiplash offers a towering performance by J.K. Simmons, one of the great character actors of the day. With his bald head, icy blue eyes, sonorous voice, and withering sarcasm, Simmons first caught my attention almost 20 years ago when he played a scary, formidably intelligent white supremacist on the NBC drama Homicide: Life on the Street. Recurring roles on Oz and Law & Order followed, and over the years Simmons has appeared in movies by the Coen brothers (The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading) and Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air), as well as the first Spider-Man franchise (as the roaring J. Jonah Jameson). He’s one of those insurance-policy actors who elevates whatever he’s in, with the result that he never quits working but seldom gets the parts he deserves.

Terence Fletcher is the exception, a giant, Oscar-grabbing role, and the scenes of him terrorizing his students are as gripping as the basic training sequences in Full Metal Jacket. Fletcher rules by insult, and his instruction is rife with racist, sexist, and homophobic put-downs. (“That is not your boyfriend’s dick,” he advises one of the reed players.) During a class break, he gently quizzes Andrew (Miles Teller), a first-year student intent on becoming the next Buddy Rich, about his family—his mother left when he was a child, his father wanted to be a writer but now teaches high school English—and then, back in class, uses this personal information to humiliate Andrew in front of the others. The cowed students stare at the floor during Fletcher’s tirades, which sometimes cross over into physical abuse: when Andrew has trouble with the tempo of a number, Fletcher gets in his face, counts “one, two, three, four,” and slaps him across the cheek just off the four count, over and over, bellowing, “Was I rushing or dragging?”

For Fletcher, jazz is a duel to the death, and he encourages a cutthroat environment. When he recruits Andrew, the young drummer begins as an understudy and page turner for Carl (Nate Lang), the core player, but after Carl fumbles at a competition, Fletcher promotes Andrew to the lead spot. This triumph is short-lived, however; almost immediately, Fletcher finds an even younger student, Ryan (Austin Stowell), to position as usurper to the drum throne. Finally he pits all three of them against each other, banishing everyone else from the classroom and endlessly rotating the drummers until one of them can execute a fiendishly fast double-time swing rhythm. This torture session goes on for hours until Andrew finally wins; the sequence is undeniably compelling, but it seems to have been lifted from Hoosiers or any of a hundred other movies about a coach whipping his team into shape.

Andrew is the perfect sucker for Fletcher’s raw aggression and be-all-you-can-be rhetoric. He practices relentlessly, layering bandages over his bloody blisters, and though his kindhearted father (Paul Reiser) urges him to maintain some perspective, Andrew soon begins to adopt Fletcher’s stance of arrogant superiority. At Thanksgiving dinner he brags to his relatives about his status as the youngest student in Fletcher’s advanced studio band and mocks his cousins for their modest athletic achievements. He strikes up a relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a young student at a nearby university, but can barely conceal his smugness when she admits she can’t decide on a major. Eventually he summons her to a coffee shop and breaks off the romance, coldly explaining that he can’t let anything get in the way of his quest for musical immortality.

But for all the emphasis on jazz (and all the swaggering big-band numbers by Justin Hurwitz), Whiplash isn’t really a jazz-oriented movie. We’ve all heard about the legendary after-hours “cutting contests” in which the great players soloed back and forth, trying to smoke each other. But if you’ve ever played in any kind of improvisational group, you know that the key to making it work is listening to your fellow players, not trying to vanquish them. The jazz musicians I know may be incredibly exacting like Fletcher, but the good ones also understand that generosity and camaraderie are integral to a great ensemble, and that the easiest way to ruin a number is to let it turn into an ego competition, with every player disinterestedly marking time until the spotlight comes to him.

What Whiplash ultimately champions isn’t really musicianship but empty, grandstanding virtuosity. Under Fletcher’s tutelage, Andrew never learns anything about nuance or dynamics; as designated by Chazelle, the measures of his artistic accomplishment are strictly speed and ferocity. The movie ends with Andrew executing one of those horrible, endless jerk-off solos that give jazz a bad name, though it’s presented as the ultimate victory. It’s a moment of technical perfection in an art form whose magic lies in its occasional flaws. Louis Armstrong, a jazz musician of some repute, was so poorly schooled that he never learned how to form a proper embouchure (which is why he had that awful circular groove in his upper lip until the day he died). Some of his greatest solos from the 20s and 30s have their bum notes, because he was always trying something new, but no one can fault the feeling he put into them. To be one of the greats, you have to run the risk of being no good at all.