As a study of obsession and ambition, Oscar-nominated drama Whiplash is hard to beat

Miles Teller, left, and J K Simmons in Whiplash. Daniel McFadden
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Director: Damien Chazelle

Starring: Miles Teller, J K Simmons, Paul Reiser

Four stars

If you've ever sat in a jazz club or concert and thought that the band was just riffing the night away with nary a care in the world, Whiplash will beat that feeling out of you faster than an up-tempo drum solo.

Rarely has a movie shown so viscerally the utter pain that can accompany the bliss of creating good music.

And, in the case of the aspiring jazz drummer at the centre of Whiplash, played by the fast-rising Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now, Divergent), we mean physical pain as well as mental torture. We're talking chafed, bleeding fingers dripping onto the cymbals, the blood mixing with sweat and, yes, tears.

The engaging Teller, whose boyish, upbeat demeanour always seems to be suggesting something darker and more desperate underneath, is just one of the reasons why Whiplash is such an engrossing film.

Another is the ingenuity of the writer-director Damien Chazelle who, in only his second feature film, is clearly working from the heart – he played jazz drums in high school.

The third is the wonderful J K Simmons. You've seen him steal scenes in films ranging from Spider-Man and Juno to Burn After Reading, but you've never seen him burn through the screen like this, savouring the role of a lifetime as a teacher who inspires, terrifies, bullies and abuses in ways that leave you wondering whether you should call the police from your seat.

Though often excruciating to watch, it’s a fascinating student-teacher dynamic and it allows Chazelle to raise the question not only of how much one should suffer for one’s art, but also what makes us truly learn? Is it encouragement, pressure, or pain? Is it joy or is it fear?

Teller plays Andrew Neiman, an ambitious 19-year-old student at a top conservatory. He longs to play in the jazz ensemble led by Terence Fletcher (Simmons), a brilliant conductor who isn’t averse to hurling out sexist and homophobic slurs – or even throwing a chair at a musician who can’t quite capture the right tempo.

Andrew, who dreams of Buddy Rich-like greatness, is thrilled when he catches Fletcher’s attention. He’s on the rise. Or so he thinks.

Fletcher is the kind of teacher who raises a student up just to cut him down. There are many movies where a tough teacher – think John Houseman in The Paper Chase – runs roughshod over students, only to make them better at the end, and you know that's where you're going.

Here, we have no idea what will happen. Andrew could end up insane in a gutter, for all we know.

Andrew isn’t wholly a victim here, as his dreams of greatness grow into an obsession. His early success emboldens him to ask the sweet young woman at the cinema counter on a date – this adorable scene makes full use of Andrew’s uneasy bravado. But then he sabotages their budding relationship with his limitless ambition.

Andrew’s no ray of light for his family, either. He’s dismissive of his dad (Paul Reiser, sensitive in a small role) for having abandoned dreams of being a writer.

The human drama comes to a head on the high-pressure stages of musical competition — but this isn't Glee. No smiles, hugs or happy mash-ups.

The final act will test just how demonic Fletcher can be and how far Andrew will go to be great.

And it’s here that things hit a bit of a snag, alas, with a rather melodramatic plot twist. Though it contains some cool drumming – Teller did his own, the product of many hours of lessons – the plot contortion strains believability on several levels.

But by this point, Chazelle, Teller and Simmons have us so firmly in their grip on this weird and absorbing journey, we don’t mind all that much. We’ll play along.

Whiplash is out in cinemas on Thursday, February 19