Whiplash: A Story of Greatness or Achievement?

I recently watched the movie Whiplash for the first time. I went into it with high expectations because I had heard so much about it surrounding the 2015 Oscars.

Having a brief history in music performance — specifically jazz — I was zoned in immediately. The portrayal of the overall music culture was pretty accurate, but J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of the typical music teacher was absolutely brilliant (and maybe only a slight exaggeration from real life).

Music cultures are typically very individualistic. Performers usually carry a lot of pride and are focused on their own performances and being their absolute best. The team bond is also very strong, but the moment an individual shows weakness or poor performance, the team takes a step back so that person is sufficiently exposed. They expect that failing to be promptly addressed by authority and for that person to own up to their weakness, making certain that it doesn’t happen again. It can be slightly brutal. As for music teachers, they carry their authority very uniquely — they’re austere, extremely hard-working, and even harder to please.


There I am exposed in the front row (because flutes are always in the front). I’ve practiced this, my music full of small notes to denote various improvements and reminders, my attention is undivided, I’m playing on. Then, with clenched fists, he stiffly circles his arm into an abrupt halt, I shoot my head up awaiting instruction and there it is — the stick in hand already pointed at the culprit section (mine), jaw tightened, and glasses that have slid down the bridge of his nose, creating an all-too-perfect gap for him to peer over with disdain. His finely-atuned ears have caught something heinous and there’s not a chance he’s moving on until it’s fixed.

“Flutes. That’s sloppy. Bar 105.” His arms at the ready to conduct, pointing only at my section, he counts us off to start. We make it one bar before he repeats the abrupt motion to cut the playing. “Again. 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and.” The sloppiness only seems to be getting worse. “Down the line.” One-by-one he calls out each person by name, cues them to begin playing, listens, stops them, and moves onto the next until he’s narrowed down the culprit. My heart races a little faster each time one person finishes and the mini-audition to prove my innocence nears me. “Courtney. 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and.” I play it — I’m in tune, on tempo and pulled off the syncopation. Phew. The next girl isn’t so lucky.

Just a typical day in the band hall, where perfect is the norm, great is unremarkable, good is trivial, and average is an atrocity. What a culture.


The movie continues to surface these types of memories in me and I’m laugh-crying on the inside at how accurately it's portraying a life I was once steeped in. I’m fully engaged and arrive at the scene where Neimann's sitting at the dinner table with family and friends. He’s feeling like his continual progress at the conservatory is not being given the attention and praise it deserves. He lashes out in an arrogant rant against the others at the table sharing their own successes — the kind that makes you want to recoil and hide because it’s so painful to watch. As the movie progresses, you begin to notice the raw egotism of Andrew Neimann running an irksome thread throughout the whole story.

The scenes move back and forth between his achievements and his failings, with each failing followed up by an immense amount of painful practicing. His hard work and ability to grind it out is impressive. However, and this is the biggest disappointment of the movie to me, his character is never addressed.

I arrive at the very last scene that climaxes into an incredible execution of the drum solo in Caravan. His arms are moving a 100 miles a minute, blood and sweat is dripping from his body, and the intensity of his face and focus is keeping every muscle in my body clenched. Then finally, he releases that very last cymbal crash that seems itself to cause the abrupt blackout of the last scene, ending the entire movie on the high of an unbelievable performance.

Achievement — the pinnacle of the lives of Andrew Neimann and Terence Fletcher. Achievement is what they devoted themselves to and was the ultimate measure of how valuable their lives were. I got to the end of the movie and all I found myself saying was, “That’s not greatness.” Achievement? Yes. Greatness? No. Not that the movie was supposed to portray anything differently, but I had to stop and ask myself, "What do I want to devote my life to? By what will I measure the value of my impact?" 

Greatness isn’t something that can be concretely measured. Greatness manifests itself in the intangibles of life and greatness is always focused outwardly. It’s never solely about personal accomplishment.  If I can devote myself to personal growth, then I’ll know how I can serve those around me to help them accomplish the same. My personal growth is a means to a more meaningful and fulfilling end because it’s not about me. If I can shed my selfishness and put myself in the shoes of those in my care, I can help transform them from the inside out. I can come alongside them and pull them up to the next level with me. If I can pay attention to and appreciate the uniqueness of an individual and how they’re wired, I can tailor how I relate to them so my impact is more personal and sincere.

Personal achievement's only role is to give credence and weight to the ultimate impact, which is selfless leadership, servanthood, and being the least so that those around you can rise to the occasion and shine. This is greatness.