JK Simmons is more than a supporting actor in breakout jazz drama Whiplash says MacDara Conroy

JK Simmons was robbed. I mean, it’s great that he won a Golden Globe this week, following a ream of other awards over recent months, and that he’s in the running for an Oscar for his performance in breakout music school drama Whiplash. That’s all a long time coming for one of the great character actors, who’s made a lasting impression in pretty much everything he’s done since Oz in the late 1990s. But the accolades are invariably for best supporting actor – a mere consolation prize, and all the more jarring considering his fearsome jazz tutor Terrence Fletcher is at the very least a co-lead role, and at best one on which the film in question pivots almost entirely.

Ostensibly a battle of wits between Simmons’ cruel, acid-tongued arsehole and Miles Teller’s blank-faced freshman percussion nerd, a twisted take on the teacher-student tête-à-tête as the former goads the latter to breaking point, Whiplash consciously sells itself on the breathtaking musicianship seen and heard throughout. While it turns out Teller mimes his way through often intense scenes beating the holy hell out of his kit, shedding as much blood as sweat, his astonishing effort is visceral and tangible, and exhilarating to watch. However, his Andrew’s autistic devotion to his craft, at the expense of any real human relationship barring maybe that with his well-meaning but uncomprehending father (Paul Reiser), doesn’t leave much to identify with. He might play like Buddy Rich, but he’s a one-note character.

So it’s up to Simmons to liven things up between musical numbers as the antagonist of the piece, recalling R Lee Ermey’s iconic drill instructor in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket with his pants-wetting bark and razor-sharp barbs. Sweet and disarming one moment, shrill like a megaphone the next, he might not play like Buddy Rich but he sure as hell acts like him, evoking the very worst qualities of such notorious band leaders. In doing so, his command of the screen is near total, not only bending the scenes he inhabits around his will, but manipulating the audience as easily as he conducts his studio band.

The decidedly awkward Andrew isn’t easy to like, not least because of his very singular obsession, but Fletcher puts you firmly in his corner. And that’s all down to Simmons, who steals the show dramatically yet without overwhelming the picture at large. His Fletcher is loud and intimidating and often despicable, but also nuanced and surprisingly sympathetic, imbuing real drive and encouraging belief in both sides of this unlikely underdog story that’s ably helmed by writer/director Damien Chazelle, adapting his earlier short (and more than making up for his embarrassing screenplay credit on the atrocious The Last Exorcism Part II).

And no, you don’t need to know anything about jazz to get it.

Whiplash opens nationwide on Friday January 16th

Also out this Friday is Apples of the Golan (at the IFI and selected cinemas): Irish documentarians Keith Walsh and Jill Beardsworth’s film follows over a number of years the lives of residents in Majdal Shams, one of a handful of remaining Arab Druze villages in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and one only kept alive by its meagre apple trade with neighbouring Syria.

Technically speaking it’s not up to much: uneven sound and image quality abound, and the filmmakers struggle to find a cohesive narrative in their edit. But the variety of locals they spend time with – between the Assad-worshipping older generation who pray for reunion with Syria, and the more pragmatic, even jaded youth who remark on their statelessness with justified frustration – are given ample opportunity to tell their stories.

And it’s ultimately the people themselves who paint a vivid picture of a community as reluctant pawns in a geopolitical chess game, slowly being choked of life. The title is supposed to be a metaphor for them, but perhaps a better one would be the piles of dead fish on the dried bed of the local lake, its waters drained to feed the demands of nearby Israeli settlements. The facts on the ground speak for themselves.

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