EVERYBODY HAS A SOUL. JOE GARDNER IS ABOUT TO FIND HIS.
This has been a difficult year for my family, with two deaths. As 2020 draws to a close, as a pandemic has also changed our lives, one easily begins to ponder the meaning of life. What is it we fill our lives with, what is it we do that brings us joy? No wonder that another Pixar film comes that takes those questions seriously – this one directed by Pete Docter who did such a profound job with Inside Out (2015). This one is a companion piece.
Dreaming of playing jazz on stage
Middle-aged and lonely middle school music teacher Joe Gardner lives in New York City and does his best trying to inspire his students. What he actually dreams of doing is play jazz on stage, and he finally gets his chance at the famed Half Note Club in Manhattan. His performance impresses a prominent jazz singer, Dorothea Williams, who tells him to come back later that night and play at her concert. Joe is thrilled, but doesn’t watch his step; outside the club, he falls down a manhole and loses conscience. Suddenly, he finds himself on the big stairway to the Great Beyond together with other souls.
Horrified, because after all he has a dream to fulfill, Joe makes his way to the Great Before, a place where souls are shaped; this is where they find their personalities and traits before heading to Earth to own a body. Joe is paired with 22, a soul who’s quite a troublemaker and has no high opinion of life on Earth. Together they’re about to invade Joe’s current life, with different agendas.
A rich portrait of African-American culture
Jazz and Joe’s African-American identity are firmly connected to this film. As a co-writer, Kemp Powers put a lot of himself into the lead character and also became Docter’s co-director. In order to create an even richer portrait of African-American culture, beyond the personal, people like Herbie Hancock were consulted and New Orleans musician Jon Batiste worked on the jazz arrangements. At the same time as Joe Gardner is a credibly shaped member of that community, his situation in life transcends every cultural border. We all recognize ourselves in the issues and choices he faces. Joe has found his calling, music, but hasn’t succeeded in fulfilling dreams or create a fully satisfying life. His journey together with 22, as they end up in different bodies on Earth, is chaotic and hilarious, but Joe also comes to realize what we all must find: a basic level of security and satisfaction, a place in life where we know how to appreciate the things that make us happy.
In the second half of the film, Docter and his collaborators deliver those profound moments that made Up (2009) and Inside Out so worthwhile, emotional insights that don’t follow simple formulas (even if many aspects of all Pixar films do have a template that the studio’s filmmakers know how to twist to perfection). This movie also has a lot of fun with a shopworn but always rewarding concept, characters swapping bodies with each other; Joe spends a big part of the story as a cat, 22 as Joe recovering from his accident.
Soul is remarkably conceived, faithfully mirroring New York locations but having a completely different sense of imagination when it comes to depicting the universe of the souls, its characters drawn as simple yet vivid and bubbly figures. Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey are terrific together, with valuable contributions from among others Phylicia Rashad as Joe’s mother, frequently worried about her son’s future.
Batiste delivers the jazz, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross the electronic score, an unconventional choice for a Pixar movie. An impressive achievement, the same year as the composers also did such a wonderful job with Mank.
Soul 2020-U.S. Animated. 100 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Dana Murray. Directed by Pete Docter. Screenplay: Pete Docter, Mike Jones, Kemp Powers. Music: Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross. Cast: Jamie Foxx (Joe Gardner), Tina Fey (22), Questlove (Curly), Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett… Wes Studi, June Squibb, John Ratzenberger.
Last word: “I think one of my great joys was when we did one of our first audience previews and hearing all these young college-age kids saying that, when they asked them what was their favorite character and they were like, ‘Joe really helped me process what I’m going through now as a 19-year-old freshman in college.’ To have teenagers relate to the emotional challenges they’re going through, through the conduit of this 45-year-old black man, that really makes you feel good, because that’s ultimately what we’re always going for, is our shared humanity. I had no doubt that we’d be able to do it because Pete had a protagonist who was geriatric in ‘Up’. And we were all able to get behind that Carl Fredrickson, so I feel like getting behind this brother shouldn’t be that bad.” (Powers, Collider)