Damien Chazelle's new film Whiplash is a tense, intense thriller about talent and what it means — and what it costs — to succeed. Andrew (Miles Teller) is an ambitious young drummer at Schaffer, a top Juillard-esque music conservatory. He is recruited by the brilliant but terrifying conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) to join Schaffer's ultra-competitive studio band.
UK readers may find it helpful here to imagine an episode of The Apprentice with talented young musicians as the candidates and Fletcher as the boss from hell — he makes Alan Sugar look like a pussycat. He yells at his students, throws things at them, hits them, insults them and — worst of all — swaps them out for their alternates at the drop of a hat or, at least, the missing of a beat. "The key is to relax," he tells Andrew before, moments later, screaming at him, demanding to know whether Andrew is a rusher or a dragger. After some initial praise from Fletcher, Andrew thinks he is immune from this torture, but within minutes, he is thrown off his pedestal and forced to nurse his hurt pride.
Andrew's father (Paul Reiser) tells Andrew to quit — that nothing is worth this level of abuse — but Andrew can never abandon his one true passion. He is that Apprentice candidate who will always give 110% — every drop of blood and sweat, and every tear — in order to succeed. At first, Andrew seems like a nice, quiet guy who lacks confidence with girls and has a major inferiority complex around his talented cousins. But we soon realise that Andrew has had to sacrifice likability in order to realise his dream. He lacks people skills and he is arrogant and single-minded to the point of ending a blossoming relationship because he knows the girl, Nicole (Melissa Benoist), will try to interfere with his devotion to music. In this way, he resembles Jesse Eisenberg's Mark Zuckerberg; his break-up with Nicole, in particular, is very reminiscent of The Social Network's opening scene.
Does Andrew really have what it takes to be the best and if he does, will Fletcher allow him to achieve the recognition and success Andrew feels he deserves? Whiplash, which is named for one of the core pieces played by the studio band, is a physically draining and exhausting film — especially the epic drum solo in the film's final act. You can't help but be swept up by the movie's taut, heightened energy: you find your feet tapping along with the rhythm and your heart racing along in time with the breakneck beat of the drums.
Teller, who has played the drums since the age of 15, is great in a difficult role as the often unlikable protagonist, but it is Simmons who steals the show, just like his character in the film. Whiplash isn't the film to see if you want a nice, relaxing evening at the cinema, but if you want a raw, uncompromising story about talent, ambition and ego, it's definitely the one to watch.