Jazz isn't dead. Miraculously, there's always a small but steady stream of young people who continue to fall in love with this most dazzling and elusive American genre, spending hours, days and months running ribbons of scales and memorizing Charlie Parker solos in the hopes that some of the alto god's facility, if not his indefinable genius, might flow through their own fingers. To care so much about a kind of music that's nearly impossible to conquer, and that is almost certain to guarantee a lifetime of being broke and miserable, is a specific kind of devotion. The best thing about Damien Chazelle's exuberant but wayward Whiplash is that it captures that ardent near-mania so beautifully. Loving any music this much will surely end in heartbreak — and still, fools rush in.
In this case, Fool No. 1 is Miles Teller's Andrew, a New York City kid with big dreams of — well, who knows what his specific dream is, in terms of making his mark, making a living, making it big? Andrew is a jazz drummer, crackerjack for his age, and the only thing he seems to yearn for is that nebulous quality we call greatness. He's just made it into a topnotch conservatory, but he's not going to be happy shuffling his way through dopey swing tunes. He's dying to get into one of the toughest of the school's ensembles, led by its most fearsome instructor, an abusive drill sergeant disguised in regulation hipster black. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is a buff, scowling chrome-dome — he's like a bad-attitude Mr. Clean. And when it comes to his elite jazz group, he runs a tight ship, berating his players with the most foul invective — much of it patently homophobic — for the tiniest screw-up. Sometimes he'll even kick a member out for not screwing up at all. This is his way of getting the best out of his musicians, and weirdly, it seems to work: He prides himself on leading his outfits to one jazz-competition victory after another, and his players are often hand-picked for the few plum gigs that exist in the jazz world.
Andrew is thrilled when Fletcher singles him out and gives him a seat. He's less thrilled when Fletcher starts playing evil mind games with him, though he plays along like a clueless puppy. And for the first two-thirds, at least, boosted by Andrew's sweaty rush of inspiration, Whiplash soars. Andrew loves the music so much that he pretends not to care that he has no friends: He's pompous in that way ambitious, talented kids often are, having convinced himself that his art is the only security blanket he needs. Yet he drops clues that he's not the wannabe genius iconoclast he pretends to be. Feeling a burst of confidence after snagging that chair in Fletcher's group, Andrew finally gets up the nerve to ask the pretty concession-stand worker (played by Melissa Benoist) out on a date. Later, he rejects her with the kind of cruelty specific to insecure strivers who suddenly doubt their own talents. It's the most painful moment in the movie.
But it's not the only one. Chazelle shows us Andrew's bloodied fingers, scraped raw from hours of practicing the most intricate and delicate maneuvers. The scenes in which Andrew is either playing music, thinking about music or talking about music are the best in Whiplash. The scenes that are supposed to be more loaded with meaning — that is, those in which he's being whipped into shape by the deviously manipulative Fletcher — are the weakest, and they're the reason the movie falls apart well before the last few bars. Fletcher isn't just a complicated, bare-knuckled teacher, the kind who talks tough as a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff; he's a sociopath, and his ultimate humiliation of Andrew makes little sense, beyond marking him as a nutter.
Simmons is terrific, giving some shape, dimension and sandpaper edges to a character that's little more than a writer's construct. But the movie's "Hey, guess what, he's just crazy!" resolution is ultimately unsatisfying. Chazelle may think he's asking big questions like, "How far should one go in striving for greatness?" But that's not how Whiplash is framed: We're supposed to leave our seats feeling just a little admiration for Fletcher and his alleged standards, because perversely, they really do tease out some greatness in Andrew. But Fletcher's tactics have nothing to do with talent, or greatness, or even just the complicated dynamics of playing music. He's just a cartoon bad guy masquerading as a complex one.
Chazelle has directed one previous feature, the 2009 Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench; he also wrote the script for last year's dazzling Grand Piano, directed by Eugenio Mira. And if Whiplash doesn't quite hang together, he's still managed to pack it with some wonderful ideas: A sometime jazz drummer himself, he understands — and conveys — the way improvisation, when you hit the groove, can feel like flying. Teller, as a kid who wants to grab the world by the collar one minute and curl up into a ball the next, is marvelous. That mix of braggadocio and vulnerability is right there in his soft, malleable features: He's like a baby Robert Mitchum. And when Andrew is first called upon to tackle the song from which the movie takes its title, a Hank Levy number hung on a devilishly tricky time signature, you can see him sweat as he considers the chart, a thicket of dotted notes and improbable rests. You can also see the joy he gets from striving to master this impossible music, a specific kind of pleasure that Whiplash nails. What is this thing called love? You'll know it when you play it.