In the newest Pixar animated movie Soul, memory meets destiny when Joe Gardner is taken to his first live music performance by his father. As a child, he is reluctant to get involved in music, but his father, a musician who is only seen in flashback, escorts him down the staircase of a New York City club to introduce him to what he previously dismissed as jazz, but what the father correctively and expansively terms “black improvisational music.” Once a young Joey reaches the bottom of the stairs, he stands, enthralled by the sounds emanating from the stage. The pianist on stage has the power to animate Joey’s fingers, as he plays air piano on the back of a chair he is gripping. It is in this moment that music captures his imagination, and becomes an essential component of his identity. But Soul asks us–what are the limits of that identity?
This visually immersive film takes the viewer on the type of journey that Pixar has been known for in releases such as Toy Story (1995), Finding Nemo (2003), and Up (2009)–existential questions coupled with multiple levels of humor. At times, instead of perceiving multiple winks at adults watching the film with children, I stopped to wonder if the film is actually pitched to adults with enough bright colors and swirling movements to captivate children who happen to be in the same room. If so, do not worry–this film’s most frightening moments come from Lost Souls, enormous sand monsters unable to break free of the obsessions that torment their consciousness. These obsessions, for example, a Wall Street-type hyper-focused on making trades, likely hold more terror for adults.
Some of the animating existential questions of this feature begin with the name. The name Soul is meant in a couple of signifyin(g) ways: as a genre category, sure (though imprecise), but also as a life force and central concern. What are souls meant to do? Who are we meant to be?
At times, instead of perceiving multiple winks at adults watching the film with children, I stopped to wonder if the film is actually pitched to adults with enough bright colors and swirling movements to captivate children who happen to be in the same room.
The film begins by focusing on Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) as he directs an ensemble of middle schoolers in a nearly unintelligible musical number. A standout student (she quite literally rises from her chair while soloing) provides Mr. Gardner the opportunity to explain the power of his connection to jazz. The viewer is meant to understand that he really does not want to teach, but to perform. The irony is that, upon being separated from his body, he is given the most complex teaching assignment of his existence. He is paired with 22, a pre-body soul who is both naïve and cynical, and resolutely resistant to any earthly charms, even those of “music sounds.”
Soul plays fast and loose with the genre of those “music sounds.” Soul is also the name of a genre popularized by Black American musicians in the mid-twentieth century. In some ways, it is represented as a continuation of the jazz that Gardner has dreams of playing on small stages. In other ways, it lies in tension with Gardner’s interests–he anxiously pushes past a subwaybusker playing the guitar, despite the appeal of this soul music to 22. The music of the film itself features original compositions by Jon Batiste, laid into a score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. The collaboration here shimmers–it is difficult at times to determine where the soloing ends and the tonal washes that portend the transitions to purgatory-like planes begin. Virtuosic flurries indicate an entrance to “the zone,” movement that is reinforced visually by fading Gardner’s background to black, and surrounding him with purple and pink starbursts (a familiar visual cue for those acquainted with Marvel’s Black Panther). And yet, the frame is definitely focused on jazz signifiers–from the Max Roach album that Joe shows a student drummer to the very real jazz musician, Berklee College of Music professor Tia Fuller, who both plays the saxophone and serves as a character model for the fictional bandleader Dorothea Williams, voiced by Angela Bassett. One of the primary delights of this movie is the careful attention to animating musicians playing music. The notes played on instruments are real, such that the intervals match those that the viewer hears.
Soul plays fast and loose with the genre of those “music sounds.” Soul is also the name of a genre popularized by Black American musicians in the mid-twentieth century. In some ways, it is represented as a continuation of the jazz that Gardner has dreams of playing on small stages.
Jazz tropes wind their way through the movie, as a pedagogy. Some make sense. The connection of jazz to mysticism, for example, is well documented. It is easy to imagine John Coltrane, along with any number of jazz greats, hovering in “the zone.” Other tropes, such as the tension between Mr. Gardner as middle-school music teacher vs. Joe Gardner as gigging musician make less sense. Why not both, especially with a story based in New York? Additionally, for a film so focused on human and soul connections and the connective material between musical genres, the isolation of jazz from genres such as soul and gospel seems counterintuitive. Apparently, there is no vocal music in the Great Beyond.
It is striking to consider Soul alongside two other recent releases: Sylvie’s Love (2020) and One Night in Miami (2020). They share some architecture: the screenwriter of Miami, Kemp Powers, co-directs Soul, serving as the first black director of a Pixar film, a film which also features the first black protagonist of a Pixar film. All three films seek to revise our understandings of Black music (to borrow and adjust the elder Mr. Gardner’s formulation) by providing intimate details of Black life. In Sylvie’s Love, a romance offers those details, and in Miami, Sam Cooke’s songwriting process is the source. In Soul, the details are couched in the banter between Joe and 22, as he tries to explain why jazz is so worthwhile.
In this movie, the concept of “soul” functions as an avatar for both Black music and Black living; it is a genre, and way of being. As a familiar closing number, written by one of the most famous of soul musicians, Curtis Mayfield croons “you’ve got soul, and everybody knows, that it’s alright, yeah, it’s alright.”