Most people remember the
first time they saw Julia Roberts in a movie. It was "Pretty Woman," not the first film in which she appeared but the common introduction. Tom Cruise, for most people, sprang up out of nowhere in "Risky Business," though there were "Taps" and "The Outsiders" and a couple others before that.
J.K. Simmons, on the other hand, is a familiar face (and a familiar voice) you've kind of gotten used to over time. You probably have no idea when you saw him first. Maybe it was his work on "Oz" that first caught your eye, or the contemporaneous "Law & Order" appearances. Maybe it was "Spider-Man," as J. Jonah Jameson, but then again, who knows? Simmons has not had the careers of Roberts and Cruise, although he's appeared in almost 50 more TV shows and movies than both of them put together. He's what they call "a working actor." And he's probably about to be what they call "Oscar winner."
Simmons' work in "Whiplash" is bombastic stuff, the kind of high-wire act we only get a few times every year, usually designed for the express purpose of baiting awards voters. Except that those roles never go to J.K. Simmons, and "Whiplash" does not have the DNA of a movie in those conversations, at least not until you watch it.
The title is cribbed from a jazz tune notable for its unrelenting 7/4 and 14/8 time signatures, which might mean nothing to you until you try to keep its beat. In the film, keeping the beat of "Whiplash" and Duke Ellington's "Caravan" is Andrew (Miles Teller). He enrolled at Shaffer Conservatory to become one of the great drummers of his age. To do that, he must study under the withering, exacting presence of Terrence Fletcher (Simmons). While a good, skilled drummer, Andrew has a long way to go, as Fletcher tells him with none-too-subtle chair throws and screamed profanities.
Snoop around a bit on the internet and you'll see that jazz purists hate almost everything about "Whiplash," beginning with the fact that Andrew idolizes Buddy Rich. Purists are, of course, the artistic version of religious fundamentalists, and one concession to fiction—no matter how minor—tears at the fabric of everything that makes their art so sacred. But that's what they're focused on, the same way baseball players will tell you what's wrong with Redford's swing in "The Natural." Got it. Thanks. The real evidence here is not in that legendary player Andrew chooses to follow or whether or not Jo Jones really threw a cymbal at Charlie "Bird" Parker's head, but the brutal, suffocating relationship between mentor and pupil.
"Whiplash" is the second feature film by writer-director Damien Chazelle, and it's a tremendous piece of work. The script is laser-focused and the characters, while a bit archetypal, contrast each other beautifully, making the tension that much greater. The film was shot in 19 days, and completely edited over the course of six weeks so it could make the cut for this year's Sundance. It did just that and won just about everything at the festival, getting the ball rolling for a big year.
Teller, whose career is headed the right direction following this performance and last year's "The Spectacular Now," gives almost as good as he gets, pushing back against the tyrannical Fletcher because it's either that or be broken completely. You also buy his drumming, which is not a small feat.
But what remains after you've seen "Whiplash" is J.K. Simmons. It's the time of year when you'll hear "Oscar" attached to just about everything for one reason or another. But this one is totally legit. A Best Supporting Actor win for Simmons seems like this year's ironclad lock, a deserved recognition for a great film, a galvanizing performance and the working actor's working actor.
Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser and Melissa Benoist
Directed by Damien Chazalle