Netflix Special Review: INSIDE
Initial Release Date: May 30th, 2021
Written & Directed By: Bo Burnham
Come and watch the skinny kid with the steadily declining mental health, and laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself.
Those were some of the final words in the last song from Bo Burnham’s previous special titled, Make Happy, which released on Netflix almost five years ago as of writing. It’s a comedy special that I still hold as one of my favourites, and found myself returning to often since its release. Not only for Bo’s razor sharp wit coupled with his signature one-man musical theatrics, but for that last song. More specifically, for those last moments. Those last moments wherein you experience a shift; a shift that’s so subtle, so seemingly flitting, and yet so palpable that you can almost ‘feel’ it resonate through the audience who watched it happen live in New York. When the song ends, everything returns - jarringly, and within a second - to ‘normal,’ and Bo ends the show by simply saying, “thank you, I hope you’re happy.” It’s then where we see a final sequence that lets us know that, ‘this is it.’ This is the last time we will ever see this young man on stage. And as I watched the credits roll, the feeling I had is best described as one of melancholic relief. Knowing that even though I will dearly miss his artistry, I wanted this person to seek the space and help he needed to take care of his mental well-being.
This is exactly why my feelings towards his newly released special, INSIDE, are so vast, and yet largely feel superfluous, because I was content with its non-existence and knowledge that Bo had (hopefully) found the solace he was looking for. My criticisms, of which there are only a few, feel irrelevant. Not because I feel them unwarranted, but because I as an artist myself with demons of his own, seeing the genuine ‘vomit’ of emotion that Bo poetically spewed in a production that’s carved with such meticulosity, is something that not only ignites inspiration in me, but also fear; which leads me to question whether such a raw work of expression necessitates a ‘review.’
The quiet comprehending of the ending of it all
Somewhere around the middle of this film, Bo, tells us that he has been working on the special for nearly a year. Fearing he will never be able to finish, he now comes to the decision to never release it, so that he can continue working on it forever. Because releasing it would mean that he would have to “go back to living his life.” Doing so would mean that his work would no longer be his own, but instead now belong to the outside. The ‘excess.’ He alludes throughout the film with haunting imagery to the fear of leaving this one room - in which the entirety of the special is shot - which, in essence, is leaving this project that he continues to work on. It’s a frightening, and frankly depressing idea to think about; that this impeccably written, shot, performed, and edited piece is the product of an artist‘s continued battle with their own mental health. It questions - though does not negate - my appreciation for every beautifully framed and lit shot, every sharply written and composed song, and every sullen moment of silence. I feel almost as if I am somehow in the wrong for genuinely enjoying so much of what I witnessed, while this man on the other side of my screen is crying out for help under the guise of a well-produced ’Netflix Comedy Special.’ This feeling will always rest within me while re-watching any portion of this film. And though I cannot speak on the intent of Burnham, I would expect he would want such a feeling to exist - and possibly morph - within those who watch it as well.
Burnham said he worked on this special for over a year, and it shows. The most striking aspect for me was the actual use of filmic language. Being familiar with Burnham’s previous works, from his roots on YouTube to his live performances, to his directorial work on the feature film Eighth Grade, I knew he had a fairly good grasp on the technical aspects of production. But there’s understanding the technical aspect of filmmaking, and then there’s having that ‘something else’ wherein your prowess in wielding a camera goes beyond the technical. Understanding of pace, tone, silence, resistance, and mise-en-scène are aspects that cannot (generally) be taught, and to my surprise (though why I would be I am unsure) Bo uses the language of film beautifully. From the opening shot of a lonesome chair in front of a piano, to transitional insert shots of half opened window blinds, to static wide shots of his haphazard room, it all visually tells a story and gives the audience a graphic realization of his mind. Every shot, whether they be transitional or during a song, are aided heavily by the work Bo does with lighting. Well known for often using various lighting fixtures during his stand-up sets, it’s clear that he has a specific idea on what colours he wants, where a certain shadow should strike, and what fixtures should be used to accomplish the specific tone he wants to achieve. Even though so many moments during the hour and a half may seem ’random,’ with certain filmic choices feeling ‘unplanned,’ they aren’t. As he would often say on stage, “it’s all theatre,” which it is, and it’s all meticulously planned and flawlessly executed through the editing.
As for the actual ‘comedic’ writing and the quality of music itself, it’s here where some of my criticisms arise. More so on the writing, and less so on the composition of the songs, which I feel are all very well orchestrated with a few beats I have difficulty not humming throughout the day. Though criticisms may not be the correct word when talking about the writing, but a feeling that more could have been said and expanded upon. Burnham has something to say in almost every song or segment. Whether it be about race, capitalism, or the incessant and never-ending noise of the internet. Clearly intelligent, he speaks (and sings) on these subjects with his usual wit and sarcasm, but this time around with a far more matured voice, and with something that I’ve not seen him carry before: anger. He expresses his thoughts with force and purpose, though at the same time with a self-deprecating understanding of who he is - a rich, straight, white man. However, I still felt that there were moments where his writing didn’t go far enough. Where a song about a “White Woman’s Instagram,” which though hilariously accurate, could have explored the hypocrisies of many of these women further. A song about an “American White Guy Saving The World Through Comedy” is self-deprecative genius, but the writing still felt slightly flat. These songs lacked that extra step, extra verse, wherein it turned the stereotypes that are to be simply laughed at, into a genuine mirror that unearthed the human truth behind these caricatures. These aren’t just silly, relatable songs with ‘sick burns.’ Bo doesn’t (and has never) do that, and especially not this time around where he (supposedly) takes the gloves off. Art should ‘bother,’ but these songs aren’t going to make American white guys, or white women, or capitalists, feel bothered and take a genuine good look in the mirror. I wish they did. And if you think that is not Bo’s intention, then you haven’t been paying attention. If this were another artist, I may have simply thrown flowers; and as a brown man, have my expectations be genuinely exceeded with the valiant effort by a young, white artist. But, unfortunately, I hold Bo Burnham to a higher standard.
Mental health is at the forefront of this film, and it’s here where Bo unashamedly allows us to fully see the depth of his being with bravery. By keeping moments in the film like where he willingly films himself tearfully speak during what he calls an “all time low;” or when he’s trying to begin a segment documenting his progress, but unable to get the words out throws his mic and leaves the room in a blind rage. These moments are not comfortable to watch, and nor should they be; but are important, raw, unnerving, and aptly splice in between the vibrant songs, hauntingly juxtaposing the complexities of his mind. Though it bothers me to say it, these moments are the ones that will linger with me for weeks. They are the ones that I will think about during some of my own bouts of anxiety. Whether that’s a good thing or bad, I don’t know. But what I do know is that as a whole, this special will stick with me for years to come. All I hope for now is that Bo, and anyone else who suffers from mental illness, are able to continue seeking the help they need.
Though some of Burnham’s writing could have gone further, INSIDE is still a master-work of a true ’artist,’ whatever that word may mean, who harrowingly relinquishes - and unfortunately condenses - the excess of his psyche into an hour and a half of filmic brilliance, which Netflix laughably advertises as a “comedy special.”