Comparisons between J.K. Simmons's stand-out performance as Whiplash's conservatory jazz tyrant Fletcher and R. Lee Ermey's epochal eruptions as Gunnery Sargent Hartman in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket are as inevitable as they are apt. Twenty-nine year old writer/director Damien Chazelle has been very open about the Kubrick influence, himself referring to the film as "Full Metal Jacket at Julliard." Both Fletcher and Hartman spume vitriol with the ease and fluency of Shakespearian villains, both with the purported goal of taking a human being apart and reassembling them more to their liking. There's even a sly nod to the abusive, disastrous interaction between Ermey's Hartman and Vincent D'Onofrio's Leonard "Gomer Pyle" Lawrence when Simmons's Fletcher tears a moonfaced, white t-shirt-wearing D'Onofrio-looking student he refers to as Elmer Fudd a new one. In Kubrick's film, Hartman's psychological disassembly of Leonard turns the doughy hick into an ideal, shark-eye soldier--possibly the type of musician Fletcher would like to hone his students into. But if you've seen Full Metal Jacket, I don't need to remind that it doesn't end well. And if you look closely, you may also catch a few of Fletcher's students displaying Kubrick's classic forehead forward, chin down, about-to-snap look.
In Whiplash, Miles Teller adds to his growing reputation as a youngster to watch as Andrew, a repressed pushover attending Shaffer Conservatory to become not just great, but "one of the greats." He has no back-up plan: he'll either be a drummer as talked about as Buddy Rich or Jo Jones, or he'll be nothing at all. It's this slavish, singular devotion that Fletcher spots and exploits. Fletcher will either draw greatness out of Andrew, or he'll destroy him trying. Simmons and Teller together recall and amplify that spittle-in-the-face duoship of Ermey and D'Onofrio, thriving off and taking from each other with such an intensity that, even when the punishment is starting to feel difficult to watch, you can't not.
At the core of Whiplash is the Charlie Parker creation myth. A 16 year old novice honing an imporovisational style all his own, Parker found himself on stage jamming with a band that included venerable drummer Jo Jones. In some tellings, a frustrated Jones tossed a cymbal at the kids feet in reaction to a flubbed note. In other tellings--notably, in Fletcher's telling--Jones Frisbeed the cymbal at Parker's head, nearly decapitating him. In the former version, Jones insults Parker, in the later he physically threatens him, ostensibly seeking to punish Parker's flaw. The film comes to some complicated conclusions about what's required to climb to the top of your game, engages in a sometimes troubling way with the myths of greatness, but whatever your reaction to Whiplash's findings, it can't not be energized by the performances and the bleeding, sweating, drum solo pace.
A year in movies tends to follow a year in reality: as the days get darker, so do the films. The psychological tampering and out-and-out abuse in Whiplash may be challenging for some to be audience to, but the reward is more than worth the effort. Whiplash, mostly thanks to the--excuse me--drum-tight performances from Simmons and Teller, is one of the most alive movies of the year. This is winter cinema that doesn't require 3D glasses to make you feel present and enveloped in the action.