“If you don’t practice, you end up in a rock band.”

— Drum great Buddy Rich

In fact, actor/drummer Miles Teller, who plays the young drummer Andrew Neiman in Damien Chazelle’s throbbing, pounding drama, actually played drums in a rock band, and for this film had to learn to play jazz drums, an entirely different discipline. Isn’t it funny what you can learn at the movies? We also learn that J.K. Simmons, the papa in “Juno,” the comedic, tough police chief in “The Closer,” can do just about anything.

Young Miles Alexander Teller is not only a good actor, but an exciting musician. For his performance in the film “The Spectacular Now,” he won the Dramatic Special Jury Award for Acting at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Jonathan Kimble Simmons is as familiar a face to American television audiences as the NBC logo. He is known for his roles as Dr. Emil Skoda on the NBC series “Law & Order,” neo-Nazi Vernon Schillinger on the HBO prison drama series “Oz.” If his voice sounds familiar, maybe it’s because he’s the voice of the yellow M&M on that product’s commercials. You probably also recognize him from his role as the wacky professor on Farmers Insurance commercials.

In “Whiplash,” Simmons plays Terence Fletcher, a skin-headed sadistic, muscular, musical drill sergeant who lives in black jeans and a tight gym rat’s black tee shirts. Fletcher lulls our souls in our first meeting, with smiles and gentle soft patter, and then, as though he has just swallowed a Mr. Hyde pill, suddenly turns into a feral monster just escaped from a cage somewhere, pressing his face into the trembling students, almost slobbering like the alien monster in “Alien.” It’s a danse macabre, brilliantly and powerfully delivered.

Fletcher runs his class as though it’s a Czarian Russian academy set apart from reality. We never know if this is the academy’s rule, for but one brief moment with a woman at the start, we never see another teacher, classroom or administrator.

The powerful artistic troika of Director Chazelle, art director Hunter Brown, and certainly the art of cinematographer Sharone Meir, gives us Fletcher’s class room, a dark windowless music room down a series of long, dimly lit mahogany halls that might well be a set in perdition, with tones of Jean Paul Sartre’s dark play “No Exit.”

With only a couple of scenes of Neiman’s outside life with his father (a misused Paul Reiser) and a girlfriend, (a touching Melissa Benoist-Marley Rose from “Glee”) and two concert competitions, most of the drama is submerged in this claustrophobic catacomb.

“Whiplash” is a smart, edgy independent film played out on a small canvas. But fueled by two central strong talents, it grows larger before our eyes, growing from a sketch to a passionate pas de deux, an operatic battle of wits between a gifted student and his sadistic master teacher. Imagine the great 1948 “The Red Shoes,” with red drumsticks, and you’re close.

Set in a top fictionalized music school, probably based on Boston’s Berklee College of Music or New York’s Juilliard, the drama begins in the classroom with master teacher Fletcher putting his top class of prospective jazz musicians, including the naive but fiercely ambitious young Andrew Neiman, though blood and sweat drills, literally, as we soon see, real blood and sweat.

Fletcher, when in full rant, angered by the tiniest mistakes, or even a cough or missed beat, leashes ugly, racist, homophobic and sexist remarks at his cowering students. He pits one against the other, the strong against the weak, constantly offering and withdrawing cherished first chair positions in almost comic musical chair routines. He throws furniture and instruments at their heads, until all, including we are trembling.

The highlight of the film is the final competition at Carnegie Hall when everything, for Neiman and all, is at stake. The entree is Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.” Hold your breath, nothing can prepare you for the drum solo.

Simmons’ performance is a reminder that underneath every comic performer, there is an actor, and with Simmons, that’s a capital A.

Miles Teller is a for-sure comer and if not here, how about a Buddy Rich bio? As for the other students, there are a few gems which gives credence to an old Hollywood adage: “If the stars are great, it’s the stars. If the small parts are great, it’s the director.” Watch the Oscar list for this one.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.


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