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'Whiplash' Is A Riveting Look At Musical Obsession


Whiplash is one of the strangest and most gripping movies about showbusiness I've ever seen, in its exclusive concentration on two psychological studies-- one of character actor J.K. Simmons as a drill-instructor-type jazz trainer, and the other Miles Teller as a 19-year-old who is maniacally obsessed with becoming the greatest jazz drummer in the world.

Simmons' character is almost certifiably crazy in his brutal, self-obsessed determination that his music be played exactly and to the nth degree as he conceives it. And the movie itself is eventually a little ambiguous about how this relates to the theory that jazz involves improvisation.

But whether you interpret Simmons as a bit of a sadist doesn't make much difference, since the story works as well whether he is or not. Unlike Teller, he may be a more complex character than he seems. More troublesome is the question of whether Simmons' method of rehearsing in tiny bits only a few seconds long makes any sense, and I did wonder whether any conservatory would keep him around-- there is evidence that the one in the movie wouldn't.

But these are mere quibbles. What counts is that both Simmons and Teller are extremely convincing, whether sympathetic or not. There is only enough of a love story to indicate how much Teller understands what his obsession involves. Whiplash is not about love or even about jazz, but about two fanatics and how they relate to each other, and on that subject it is riveting.

Compare this with Richard Gere and Lou Gossett, Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman. Whiplash resembles movies about army drill instructors and raw recruits more than any musical I have ever seen.