Sundance Review: 'Whiplash' Starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons

The story goes that in 1937 legendary saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker, at the ripe young age of 16, dared to improvise while in a jam with drummer Jo Jones. At first his ambitious gamble seemed to pay off, but Parker got ahead of himself and lost the beat, causing Jones to hurl a cymbal at him. Rather than discouraging him, Parker left the club saying "I'll be back", and after a year of intense practice he returned and the rest is jazz music history. That story of Parker's perseverance is the engine that drives Whiplash, a film that has affectionately been called "Full Metal Jacket at Juilliard". It's a nickname that fits.

Miles Teller, who scored at last year's Sundance with The Spectacular Now, returns to Park City in his most physically demanding role yet as Andrew, a first-year student at a prominent New York City conservatory. He has a dream of not only being a great jazz drummer, but the greatest drummer ever, and when we meet him he's practicing late into the night. That's when he catches the eye of Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the school's tough-as-shoe leather instructor. Andrew wants a spot on Fletcher's top notch jazz ensemble, a place where careers can be made.

Taping up his fingers like a boxer tapes his fists, Andrew works his hands to the bloody bone to gain Fletcher's favor. Gaining a spot on his team thanks to Fletcher's mind games, Andrew comes to learn that he can lose his spot just as easily. Enduring incredible physical and mental abuse at Fletcher's hands, Andrew is put through a brutal baptism by fire. To be the best he'll have to endure the worst, or be just another one of the many who have crumbled when pushed beyond their limits. At the same time, Andrew must contend with a skeptical father (Paul Reiser), a family that doesn't respect his career, and a girlfriend who may be too much of a distraction. If he's ever going to be one of the greats, like his idol Buddy Rich, there can be no outside life. There can only be the drums; there can only be the type of dedication that drove Charlie Parker, whose story is repeated often by Fletcher as a motivating tool. When he's not berating his pupils, that is.

Whiplash has had quite the journey to the big screen, beginning as a Black List script by writer/director Damien Chazelle, that was turned into a short film that took home the Jury Award at last year's Sundance. The feature version plays with your emotions like a conductor leading his band, steering away from the typical "overcoming the odds" crowd-pleaser. Chazelle never sticks to the sheet music, adding a moral quandary that threatens the already-tense relationship between mentor and student.

Playing the drums has never been depicted quite like this, showing just how physically demanding it can be. Dripping with sweat, muscles quivering with every strike; if Teller didn't do all the drumming himself it would be a shock, that's how convincing he is. Andrew's motivations are a little underdeveloped, but Teller is given plenty to work evolving from fresh-faced newbie to someone who can master the incredible pacing required for a jazz drummer. Simmons hasn't had a role this good in a very long time, and it's easy to forget just how intimidating he can be when in full a--hole mode. It's too early to start talking about Oscars and things of that nature, but it's safe to say that Teller and Simmons are in top form.

A number of classic jazz standards (you'll be hearing "Whiplash" in your head for hours after) make for a rousing soundtrack fans of the genre will be dying for, and the film moves at a brisk rhythm Count Basie would be proud of. Whiplash begins and ends on a high note, building to an exciting, brilliantly executed moment that will have audiences cheering and begging for an encore.