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Cast as a bullying music teacher in Whiplash, actor J.K. Simmons plays him as a sociopathic macho man with egg-bald pate. It’s an amazing persona and performance; it makes Vin Diesel seem like a flower arranger. Damien Chazelle’s film — giddily crafted, improbably enthralling — is a cross between The Red Shoes and Stalag 17. The school’s gifted new drumming student (Miles Teller) is, we quickly learn, Commandant Simmons’s secret favourite. The next Buddy Rich. But instead of cosseting him, the Obersturmlehrer shouts, screams, wheedles, takes him to a new level of pain, then a newer . . .
The movie is close to being kitsch of that special, Schadenfreude kind: the school of James Mason bashing Ann Todd’s piano-playing hands with a cane in The Seventh Veil (1945). No teacher is this fanatical without being arrested. No pupil is this hounded without being impelled to homicide. But we’re assured, twice, that Charlie Parker began by having a cymbal thrown at him near-decapitatingly. And look where he ended up. Dead and drug-riddled at 34, says someone. “Yes, but before that! . . . ” says someone else.
Simmons is dazzling, his sado-pedagogic mood-swings messing with the filmgoer’s head as much as those of his pupils. Teller is hardly less dazzling. (Is that really his drumming?) The film offers dark, ripsnorting fun if not, necessarily, an accurate portrait of life and times at premium music colleges.