Not my tempo: ‘Whiplash’ explores the price of artistic greatness


Spencer Kashmanian is a student at The King’s College in New York City. He wrote this film review for Eng 412: Persuasive Writing & Speaking.   What is the price of becoming great? This is the question posed by writer/screenwriter Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, which tells the story of an ambitious young jazz drummer and the vicious band director intent on making him earn immortality.

In the film’s opening scene, we meet Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) exactly where we’ll leave him: at the drums. Neyman is a music student at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Manhattan. Above all he desires to become “one of the greats.” Neyman spends sleepless nights sweating over his kit in the practice room and listening to Buddy Rich albums and dreaming of joining Shaffer’s top-notch jazz band lead by the legendary Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). When Fletcher hears Neyman play and asks him to join the band, it seems as though the stars have finally aligned.

But at the band’s first rehearsal, Neyman barely manages to get through the opening bars of the eponymous Hank Levy tune before Fletcher throws a chair at him and singles him out with the three words which will become Fletcher’s mantra throughout the film: “Not my tempo.” Neyman soon discovers that Fletcher will stop at nothing to achieve musical perfection and to discover the next great jazz musician – even if that means verbally and physically abusing band members.

Style mirrors substance in Whiplash: the storyline moves at a relentless pace akin to the uptempo swing rhythm Neyman is trying to master throughout the film. Close-up shots reveal the intimate side of music-making--a band director’s subtle cues, trumpeters clearing their spit valves, and a drummer’s bloody hands soaking in ice-water after a grueling practice session.

Whiplash is about the way an artist’s war against mediocrity can become obsessive and neurotic in a world where competition is everything. In one memorable scene, Fletcher relates how veteran jazz drummer Jo Jones once threw his cymbal at a young Charlie Parker’s head and laughed him off the bandstand, apparently giving Parker the motivation he needed to become the jazz icon everyone remembers.  For Fletcher, greatness is all about pushing oneself beyond one’s limits. “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job,’” he says.

The relationship between Fletcher and Neyman swings back and forth throughout the movie. Fletcher, thanks to a stellar performance from J.K. Simmons, is at times a brutal despot--he is later implicated in the suicide of one of his previous students--and at times almost fatherly, pushing his students to develop their potential. What remains constant,  however, is the holy terror Fletcher places on his students: he is the impossible judge they are trying to impress, and the victims of his abuse are reluctant to even call his behavior ‘abuse.’

In contrast with the carefully crafted, tense dynamic between the two lead characters, Neyman’s relationships with family and friends seem thin. We do see a caring--though somewhat oblivious--father (Paul Reiser) in Neyman’s life, but the relationship between father and son does not add enough depth to the story to be significant. Neyman’s budding romance with a Columbia student (Melissa Benoist) shows promise--Neyman works up the confidence to ask her out only after Fletcher invites him to join the band--but it does not live up to its full potential. Neyman later breaks up with her because she will only be a ‘distraction’ to him. Had Chazelle developed these relationships more, showing us just how much Neyman was giving up to satisfy Fletcher, Whiplash could have been even more compelling.

Whiplash is not a celebration of music, despite a riveting big band soundtrack. In one of the year’s best dramas, Damien Chazelle confronts us with the blood, toil, tears and sweat that go into making the cut in a highly competitive field, and asks just how far is too far in the pursuit of artistic immortality.