“Not my tempo” is perhaps the most frequently repeated line in Whiplash by the ruthless conductor Fletcher of an elite music school. An extreme perfectionist, Fletcher is abusively demanding to members of his ensemble. He shouts insults and foul language to push them to be technically perfect.
Andrew is a new joiner of Fletcher’s band. Greeted by Fletcher’s verbal humiliation and hurled a chair by the conductor, Andrew practises day and night. He does not stop with blood oozing from his palm, but put on layers of plaster and even soaks his hands in ice-water to continue with his gruelling practice sessions. While Fletcher strongly believes that positive comments like “good job” on just mediocre cannot bring musicians in training anywhere, Andrew also firmly accepts Fletcher’s methods and will not stop to make himself one of the greats. Even though he is injured in a car accident right before a competition, he still runs to the concert hall in bloody face, because he has earned the core drummer position after hours of intense competition and selection with two other drummers of the ensemble, and he cannot let the original substitutes play his part. However, as he struggles to play with his injured arm, Fletcher stops the piece halfway and tells Andrew that he is “done”. Andrew attacks Fletcher on stage and is subsequently expelled by the school.
Fletcher’s methods do not only cause discomfort to his current students like Andrew, but have allegedly led to a former student Sean Casey’s death. When the lawyer representing Sean Casey’s parents asks Andrew to testify on Fletcher’s abusive teaching, Andrew agrees. Fletcher is then fired by the school.
And yet Fletcher does not abuse students for personal reasons. In his eyes, he is doing so for the sake of the student who can overcome the challenges, and the music industry to nurture the next legendary musician. When Andrew meets Fletcher again in a pub, Fletcher tells the story of Charlie Parker. Parker once played with drummer Jo Jones. Dissatisfied with Parker’s performance, Jo Jones hurled a cymbal at Parker, nearly decapitating him. Having told himself not to be ridiculed again, Parker started practising intensively and made the legendary performance of the 20th century.
So, imagine if Jones had just said, “Well, that’s okay, Charlie. That was all right. Good job.” So Charlie thinks to himself, “Well, shit, I did do a pretty good job.” End of story. No Bird. That to me is an absolute tragedy. But that’s just what the world wants now. And they wonder why jazz is dying.
Fletcher laments at the world’s tolerance of mediocrity and excessive compliments. To Fletcher, pushing students to the extreme is his necessary duty to the industry. He is not afraid of going too far, because “the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged“.
Fletcher’s mission in life is reached with Andrew’s final performance which parallels with that of Charlie Parker. Fletcher, who already knows it is Andrew who testifies and makes him lose the job, sets Andrew up by inviting him to an important performance without telling him that the concert pieces are those he has not played before. The audience is composed of critics and agents, who never forget about a musician’s performance – if you screw it up this time, you are forever done. As expected by Fletcher, Andrew screws up the first piece – he does not even have a score to follow. Nevertheless, Fletcher is not discouraged. He starts playing another band piece that he has practised hard, that showcases all his efforts and talents. From attempting to stop Andrew, showing disbelief, nodding with satisfaction, to guiding Andrew to perfect his performance, the final scene features the eye contact between Fletcher – smiling and with great enthusiasm – and Andrew – exhausted but blissful. Andrew’s astonishing performance makes the audience wide-eyed in amazement. While for Fletcher, he has finally fulfilled his duty to the music industry.
A legendary performance certainly does not come easy, and the next great artist needs to be pushed. It is also not disputed that the next Charlie Parker will possess the determination to succeed. The question lies in how far should one go in the quest of nurturing the next legendary artist while uncertain if a young musician is really the next Charlie Parker who can withstand the stress and anxiety, or will mentally break down and have his or her future ruined. In the present era where competition is fierce, it is always a doubt as to how far should one go to pursue artistic immortality.
Below is the final scene of the film, in which you can appreciate the unparalleled performance by both JK Simmons and Miles Telller. Damien Chazelle has beautifully transformed the story of an aspiring drummer into a single-directional drumming tension that makes your heart keep racing towards the very end.