Being the uncultured person I am, I spent most of my life away from jazz music. For the most part, I saw it as nothing but relaxing audio that resides in elevators. To the younger version of me, the idea of jazz having an ounce of life seemed impossible. But as I get older, the more I realize that it’s one of the most dynamic music genres out there. After all, jazz is where musical improvisation is not only welcome but also fundamental to conveying a sense of humanity. Specifically, it allows musicians to fully converse with each other – and by extension, the audience – without the need for words.
With that in mind, I have to credit Soul for reminding me of the potential jazz has to offer. It’s not enough that the movie centers around an aspiring musician that has the genre deep in his bones. The whole film is a showcase of two worlds that evoke different things but form a realized whole regardless. Plenty of Pixar movies have had co-writers and co-directors. But never has there been one with such a distinct line between its head creators. With Pete Docter and Kemp Powers at the helm, Soul becomes an experience as bouncy and heartfelt as the best jazz pieces out there.
One only needs to read the premise to see that it’s essentially two movies in one. The film follows Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) as he struggles through life as a jazz musician. Despite working as a music teacher, he spends most of his time facing rejections for potential gigs. But one day, he lands a gig at the local club and impresses the other players with his piano-playing skills. Yet even that has setbacks of its own, as Joe accidentally falls into a manhole and causes his soul to leave his body. It’s here where the real plot begins, as Joe’s soul goes into an abstract world where souls develop before they enter vacant bodies. No longer does he have to just worry about making it to the club. He now has to worry about returning to his body period.
Although making it to a club and returning to your body are two different goals, Soul makes them feel like they belong in the same space. Specifically, these two ideas feed into Joe’s existential dilemma of what his purpose in life really is and what keeps him motivated. And the more time he spends in this abstract world, the more he learns that purpose and motivation do not have to be the same thing. In fact, the movie argues that you can needlessly restrict yourself if purpose and motivation are identical. By revealing that Joe’s only passion is jazz, we get to see his strengths turn into the things that make him close-minded.
What makes Joe’s arc resonate even more is his relationship with a troubled soul named 22 (Tina Fey). While Joe worries so much about living, 22 cares so little about living that they’re satisfied with being in limbo. As a result, being in each other’s company allows them to see new perspectives that change them for the better. Joe steps away from thinking about jazz, while 22 starts to appreciate jazz more than anything in their existence. In all fairness, this dynamic is nothing new for those who have seen at least one Pixar movie. Still, there are enough comedic antics to keep things interesting, and Fey’s emotive performance is a strong anchor for even the most dramatic scenes.
Most of what I have described takes place in the soul world. and this is where Docter puts his filmmaking muscles on display. As the person who previously directed Inside Out, it’s no surprise that his blend of existential drama and pastel colors is impeccable. From a visual standpoint, the abstract world shines bright thanks to the simple shapes of the world and its characters. In fact, it uses nothing but curved lines to bring the high authority figures to life, which contrasts with the blobby shapes of the souls. And from a story standpoint, Docter presents the various life questions in a way that doesn’t speak down to the youngest viewers.
The soul world is also home to one of Soul‘s most pleasurable aspects: the moody and upbeat score. Filling the silence with electronic sounds is nothing new for composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. And yet, this project sees them take their signature sound to new places. For all of the inorganic beeps and bloops, there’s a bit of warmth to make it have a positive vibe. Compare this with their previous film scores and you can feel how relatively lightweight this one is. Considering how inviting the soul world is, that shift in tone is only appropriate. I didn’t think Reznor and Ross’s style would work in an animated landscape, and I’m happy to say this proved me 100% wrong.
That said, it does not spend all of its 101-minute runtime on being a spiritual sequel to Inside Out. What Powers brings to the table is cultural specificity, and that does a lot to make things fresh. Right away, it communicates that jazz played a huge part in bringing the African-American perspective to the mainstream. But it doesn’t just convey this through dialogue, it does this through bold colors and lighting. In the scene where Joe plays after landing the gig, the environment shifts to blue the more he loses himself in his music. With this deliberate palette change, you can feel Joe come alive in ways he couldn’t possibly do through speech.
It’s not like Powers’s influence stops at the big story moments, either. When it’s not deep in the minutia of a spirit world, it slows down to show a living, breathing city. In one scene, Joe has to visit a barbershop in order to get rid of an earlier hair mishap. Although we only spend a few minutes at the shop, the familial connection between the workers and customers is extremely palpable. In fact, the barber working on Joe’s bad hair before those waiting in line is a detail that could only come from firsthand observation. One can easily imagine a version of this movie without those grace notes, so the fact there are so many allows Soul to truly stand out.
I must admit that none of this blew my mind or made me tear up like Pixar’s finest efforts. But that still leaves a lot of room for creativity and authenticity and Soul has those in greater capacities than anything to come out in 2020. It’s a film about living life to the fullest and a film full of life and passion in every frame. And for every minute that celebrates the African-American perspective, it spends just as much time exploring questions that can apply to everyone. If that’s not a sign that we are in the presence of master storytellers, I don’t know what is. – Mark Tan
Soul is now streaming on Disney+.
The film stars Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, and Phylicia Rashad.