I watched the movie Whiplash five times in 48 hours. I was speechless the first time I watched it, gathering more and more words with each dramatic ending, but I wasn’t satisfied until after the fifth ending. Because after the fifth time, I was certain: it wasn’t a movie about redemption or power struggles or fulfilling dreams or being a jerk. It was a movie about time.
“Not quite my tempo,” is something the instructor, Terrence Fletcher, tells the drummer, Andrew Neiman, a lot. And for the love of God, Andrew just cannot get it right. He’s either rushing or dragging. Rushing–coming in too early on the count. Dragging–coming in too late. I suppose that’s why music is written in measures, so you can be held accountable to the notes that are written. Or to whomever is screaming in your facing, shaming you into tears and slapping you across the face.
Here’s a scene I’d like you to watch.
This scene, a microcosm of the entire movie, assumes that Andrew is to blame. That it is his fault for not being on the instructor’s time. That there is something fundamentally wrong with the way he reads music, interprets it and plays it. And there is certainly something wrong with the way he sounds. This humiliation takes many shapes throughout the movie: Fletcher telling Andrew to show up at 6 a.m. for studio band when practice doesn’t start until 9 a.m; Fletcher giving Ryan Connelly the core member seat as incentive to motivate Andrew to play better; Fletcher making Andrew “earn” the part after five hours of intense drum battle competition; the dinner table conversation with Andrew’s cousins that value football and Model UN over drumming; Fletcher telling Andrew that he never had a “Charlie Parker” to call his own, as if every single one of his students had let him down. All things being measured on someone else’s time.
All of these examples make you, as a viewer rooting for Andrew, want to punch Fletcher in face. It’s a visceral reaction that calls your killer instinct to the line. And I was ready to rumble. But when you take the emotion out of it and see the characters for what they are, you can play around with some more abstract, and less primal, concepts to identify what it is you are sensing. For me, it became pretty obvious that time was the heart of the movie. Quite literally, it was the beat that was driving Andrew to greatness and compelling Fletcher to park it in order to hold on to raw talent. Andrew wanted to take it somewhere in the future and go down in history. “I want to be one of the greats,” he said. Fletcher wanted to own something that never belonged to him, and deliberately squandered it every time he realized he could never have (or be) what was before him. If he couldn’t have it, no one could.
Hats off to the writer and director of this movie to create such a forceful, and incredibly uncomfortable tension that snaps over and over and over again. Hence, the title.
“Not quite my tempo” really translates into “You’re not giving me what I want, when I want it.” It implies that Fletcher has, if not talent himself, at least an ownership of time for which he can control and manipulate Andrew to his liking. Fletcher calls it “pushing people beyond what’s expected of them.” And he is relentless at it, making sure to highlight just how often Andrew fails at meeting his standard of excellence. Like changing up the sheet music right before the big performance. I want you to fail.
Rushing or dragging. Rushing or dragging. Rushing or dragging.
But here’s the thing about time. It belongs to everyone and no one. Sure, you can fill your calendar with things to do and places to go, but do you lose track of time once you’re there, doing the things you’ve set out to do? If you do, you’re doing it right. Time becomes irrelevant in moments that matter. We ought to at least make them count.
In the end, Andrew does just that. He rushes, coming in early and cutting off Fletcher from talking to the crowd during the final performance. And he drags, continuing to play even after the Caravan ends and the lights go out. Everything that Fletcher had shamed him for in the past are the very things Andrew uses to become great. Fletcher does not get to take credit for that. It’s easy to feel a sense of relief because for once, the two of them are in agreement, but how they got there matters, and abuse does not get rewarded. This why Andrew deliberately sabotages Fletcher’s tempo in the end. He creates a moment where everyone falls on his time, on his tempo, and he leads everyone to a higher level of performance. “I’ll cue you in,” he tells Fletcher, a diminished afterthought. Andrew becomes the keeper of the beat and he plays his fucking heart out.
It is mesmerizing. It is inspiring. It makes you feel alive. Trust me, I watched it five times just to be sure.