“Holy shit,” I said to my sister as I picked my jaw up off the floor. “That was beautiful.”
Towards the beginning of the film, the protagonist Joe Gardner (voiced by Jamie Foxx) is auditioning for his big break — the chance to play with Dorothea Williams (voiced by Angela Bassett).
Playing his beloved piano, his fingers feather the keys as he keeps up with the jazz band. Then, he comes alive. Joe enters a world of his own. The notes swirl around him until a purple and blue euphoria encapsulates him and his piano.
He’s fallen into a state of flow. You’re left thinking, how could his life deteriorate from here? However, a tragic accident leaves him fighting to get back to his body in time for the gig of his life. This article is about Joe’s journey and how blindly following your passions can harm you.
Getting Your ‘Big Break’ Might Not Be the Life-Changing Moment You Think It Is
I won’t spoil the entire film for you, but Joe eventually performs with Dorothea Williams — the moment he’s been waiting for his whole life. Instead of the happily ever after audiences have become accustomed to, the film goes for a more somber and perhaps realistic approach. After confessing his indifference, Dorothea says this to him:
“I heard this story about a fish. He swims up to this older fish and says, “I’m trying to find this thing they call the ocean.” “The ocean?” says the older fish. “That’s what you’re in right now.” “This?” says the young fish. “This is water. What I want is the ocean.”
“See you tomorrow.”
Joe looks on, utterly bewildered. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Like most of us, he imagined the red carpet in front of him at every step, with pride bursting out of him. We don’t tend to look beyond our imagined success. In her TED talk, Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat Pray Love, explains how we often neglect the realism of life:
“In Spain, when a performer has done something impossible and magic, “Allah, olé, olé, Allah, magnificent, bravo,” incomprehensible, there it is — a glimpse of God. Which is great, because we need that.
But, the tricky bit comes the next morning, for the dancer himself, when he wakes up and discovers that it’s Tuesday at 11 a.m., and he’s no longer a glimpse of God. He’s just an aging mortal with really bad knees, and maybe he’s never going to ascend to that height again. And maybe nobody will ever chant God’s name again as he spins, and what is he then to do with the rest of his life?”
I challenge you to ask yourself: what will your life feel like the morning after you’ve achieved your wildest dreams? Even if you love the process as Joe does, that might not be enough. And that’s okay.
What You’re “Born to Do” Might Not Be What You Love
According to lead actor Jamie Foxx, the barbershop scene is one of the most vital parts of the film. While getting his haircut, Joe remarks:
“They say you’re born to do something, but how do you figure out what that thing is? What if you pick the wrong thing? Somebody else’s thing? And then, you’re stuck.”
The barber (named Dez) then explains how he never planned on becoming a barber and only did so because veterinary school was too expensive. Joe instantly says he should re-try, to be happy and do what he was born to do. Dez continues to explain his love for the barbershop.
Like Dez, most people fall into something they love. I never imagined myself loving writing, but here we are. I only took an interest because I realized I was good at English in school. I know it’s cliche, but as one door closes, another one opens.
Your Passions Can Get in the Way of Relationships
During the film, Joe undergoes some radical personality changes (for reasons I won’t explain in the interest of spoilers). In preparation for his “big break,” he decides to get a haircut. As time goes by, everyone in the barbershop is drawn into his newfound love for life. Most notably, Joe asks about Dez’s life — something which he never did. “How come?” Joe asks.
“You never asked,” Dez replies.
It’s not much, but it packs a punch. Joe realizes his obsession with music has hampered his relationships. He and Dez have a rapport, but Joe has spent most of his life lost in the music, unable to see what’s in front of him. That is, perhaps, the film’s key lesson. Passions can make you feel like you have a purpose, but if you’re not careful, they can lead you astray.
There Is More to Life Than Your Passions
Music is Joe Gardner. As he says in the film, he’s born to play. However, as one of the metaphysical creatures tells him, no one is “born to do anything.” Sure, your passions may be what drives you, but they aren’t what you are. If you’re a writer, you may wake up thinking about writing. You may stand in the shower thinking about writing and then struggle to sleep because you’re thinking about writing.
As Joe’s soul travels through the sea of “lost souls,” the film throws up one of its many surprises. Amongst the sad-looking, hunched over monsters, there are people lost in the flow, or the “zone,” as the film calls it. Another character named Moonwind explains it:
“Lost souls are not that different from those in the zone. The zone is enjoyable but when that joy becomes an obsession it becomes disconnected from life.”
Like Joe earlier in the film, these people are doing what they think brings them the most happiness. The flow state is the only thing that satisfies them, so they get lost in it. It raises questions about your identity. Who are you without your passions? Are you happy merely existing?
Love Life Above All Else
I’ve started writing in my journal as soon as I wake up. Every day, I write for about five minutes, reeling off whatever comes to mind. One morning I’ll write about my whacky dream, the next questioning why people believe the moon landings are fake.
There is one consistency, however. I always note down what I’m grateful for. It could be my helpful friends, the opportunities I’m given, or the deep sleep I had. It doesn’t matter.
Blindly following your passions can cause you to miss the little things. Sure, a passion may invigorate you, but don’t let it control who you are. There’s more to life than that.