How Pixar Portrays Jazz in Their New Movie ‘Soul’

Pixar’s new animated movie Soul, directed by Pete Docter (Up) and Kemp Powers (One Night in Miami), is a unique collaboration between filmmakers and musicians. Pixar Animation Studios has delivered a long list of outstanding movies. They stand out when it comes to building authentic characters, something they have been doing since the release of their first full-length movie, Toy Story, in 1995.

Twenty-five years later, they set the bar to a new standard of quality. For the first time, they will feature a protagonist with African American heritage. Jazz music is a central element in the plot and this creates additional expectations as many jazz musicians will surely examine the work.

In this article, I will explore how and why jazz music, or black improvisational music, was used in the plot as a metaphor for real life.

The Plot (Spoiler Alert)

The movie tells the story of Joe Gardner, a middle-aged music teacher whose life hasn’t quite gone the way he’d expected. Joe’s true passion is playing jazz music and he believes he is born to perform. When his time finally arrived, and he was offered to perform with the A-listed saxophonist Dorothea Williams, Joe has an accident and he ends up queueing the line into what is described as The Great Beyond. Joe panics as he feels to have unfinished business in his life (playing jazz) and manages to escape. Instead of going back to earth, he ends up in The Great Before, a place where souls are giving personalities before being born.

To avoid being sent back to the afterlife, he pretends to be a mentor and he is being assigned to a precocious soul, named 22 (Twenty-two). 22 has spent hundreds of years at The You Seminar, an institution where new souls must meet several requirements before going to earth. 22 refuses to be born as she (?) does not see the joy of life.

When 22 finds out that Joe is not a real mentor, they agree that if Joe manages to fulfill the requirements, he will be granted the earth-pass instead of 22 and so, he can fulfill his purpose in life. Joe fails but, he and 22 find an alternative. However, when on earth, 22 finds herself in the body of Joe, and Joe finds himself in the body of a cat.

While looking for a solution to their body-swop, 22 starts enjoying life, and she finds her will to be born. After a series of events, they find themselves back in The Great Before and 22 was granted her ticket to be born. As agreed with Joe, she offered the pass to him and so, Joe returned to earth while 22 stays behind.

Joe fulfilled his long-life dream by playing the concert with Dorothea Williams but soon realizes that his choices, his pursuit of one single goal, has cost him other great joys in life.

The Authenticity of the Characters

Pixar always exceeded in making their characters feel authentic. In animation, filmmakers often have to use caricatures to accomplish this. Think about the squared face and big glasses of Carl Fredricksen in the movie Up.

For the physical creation of African American characters in the movie Soul, Pixar was challenged to bring out the true African American heritage without using racist stereotypes from old cartoons. Joe Gardner, as a human, is an African-American. He has a black mustache, a hat, and big black glasses that remind us of other great jazz legends (Dave Brubeck & Toots Thielemans). The physical appearance of Joe was kept classic and avoids stereotypes. The biggest contribution to his character is, according to me, the way he relates to music.

Pixar consulted with many jazz musicians, including Herbie Hancock, during the process. They also did extensive research in jazz clubs where they interviewed musicians about their life. This research was used for Joe’s character. For the compositions and recordings, they worked with pianist and bandleader, Jon Batiste (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert).

Usually, Pixar would add music as one of the final steps in the creative process but for this movie, they followed another approach as they felt the music is a central and important piece. Joe’s authenticity was brought to life in two ways. The first one being the voicing by Jamie Foxx, who is a trained pianist himself. The second element is Jon Batiste’s compositions, recording, and physical movement. The recording was digitally filmed and reverse-programmed into animation. This means that when you see Joe play, you can see him play the notes that you are hearing. The way Jon Batiste sits behind the piano, and the way he moves his fingers across the keys, are adding to the genuineness of Joe.

“My hands are central to my life, I was in tears when I saw my essence come to life in Joe. To have this as a part of my creative legacy is an honor.”

Jon Batiste (interview with The New York Times)

Black improvisational Music as a Metaphor for Real Life

Journalist and music critic Giovanni Russonello wrote the following for The New York Times:

In the past few years, jazz has shown up onscreen most prominently in the work of Damien Chazelle. His “Whiplash” (2014) and “La La Land” (2016) tell the stories of young white men who are torturously committed to playing jazz and the feeling of excellence it gives them. In these movies, jazz is a challenge and an albatross. But in “Soul”, the music is more a salve: a river of possibility running through a hostile country, and — as Rainey says in Wilson’s script — simply the language of life.

Take for example Andrew in Whiplash (Miles Teller) whose purpose is to become a master drummer by studying at Juilliard and by practicing night and day but, he has little focus on the spirituality of jazz. Or take Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) in La La Land, who sees himself as the conservator of jazz and has the sole purpose to open a jazz club. They relate to jazz in a very different way compared to how Joe Gardner relates to the music. Jazz is part of African-American history and this is an important element in the movie.

Yes, Joe starts with a purpose as well. His life goal is to become a professional jazz musician. He is fixated on the idea that if he does not accomplish this, his life won’t have meaning. He says that he only exists to play and that nothing else matters. But the character is built around the idea that above purpose, there are more aspects in life. During the movie, Joe becomes aware of this when he sees the joys he missed after accomplishing his goal. Joe’s character is built around this epiphany and not around accomplishing one single goal. He understands that people, including himself, can become disconnected from life because they are fixating on one thing instead of all aspects of life.

In this movie, jazz music, or black improvisational music, is a metaphor for real life and its unexpected situations that force us to adapt. Director, Pete Docter, said in an interview that he was inspired by a story Herbie Hancock told. While touring Europe in the 1960s with Miles Davis there was one concert where Hancock played a piano chord so bad that he thought the whole concert was ruined. But, Miles Davis reacted to the chord by playing a series of improvised notes, and by doing this, he made Hancock’s chord look right. Miles Davis did this by not judging the mistake but by interpreting it as something new that happened. It was an unexpected situation where the musician was inspired to improvise. Miles turned something that others considered as bad, into something of value. Pete Docter said that this story contributed to the theme of the movie and that the idea of improvisation is a great metaphor for what we are doing in our daily life.

In the podcast Soul Stories the movie’s co-director, Kemp Powers, invites cast, creators, and consultants to share their experiences working on the project. Soul Stories exists out of six episodes and all of them are available on Spotify. Below you can find the episode featuring the composer, Jon Batiste.

Ⓒ images: Disney/Pixar

An Interview With Island Boy Ricky LA

Prague-based musician and songwriter Ricky LA is kicking off his music career with the release of his debut EP called Island Boy. I was eager to learn more about his music and creative process, so I invited him for a chat. We met at Naplavka, a popular hangout along the river in Prague.

It was a classic autumn day and, you could feel winter slowly taking over. The sun was shining bright, and this created the perfect setting for an outdoor interview. We grabbed a coffee, found a quiet spot, and started our conversation.

I can see that you are passionate about what you do. Also, your music reflects your positive view on life. I’m curious, what got you into music and who or what influenced and inspired you?

It was my parents who introduced me to music. My dad was playing bass guitar in a band. He taught me how to play the guitar when I was young, and everything started from there. My mum was really into listening to music, mainly American music, and that shaped my interest. When I was given the guitar, I tried to play some chords, and I didn’t like it to be honest. It was part of the education for me. But over the years, I became to love to play the guitar. I mainly enjoyed playing together with other people. Then I said, okay, let’s try to go a bit further and so I did. So yeah, it was my parents who had an important influence on me.

You grew up in quite an isolated place, Réunion Island. I trust there was an interesting local music scene. Were there any specific musicians you were listening to back then, or any music genres that stand out for you?

I listen to a lot of music, and weirdly, I rarely listened to famous or commercial artists. I investigate a lot in finding new artists, mainly music available on YouTube that was posted by the artists themselves. Most of them have around 100 views but, I can feel they have good vibes. The genre can include everything. My roots are connected with soul and jazz music, and with a focus on vocals. The music I listen to today is depending on the moment, like for example in this season, autumn, I’m listening to a lot of jazz music.

It’s important to know that I’m from Réunion Island which is a French department and there we listen a lot to reggae and dancehall. The music there is exotic, tropical, and dynamic. I am influenced by a lot of different music and I try to put all this in my sound and in my projects.

Are there still elements in your music that are directly related to your birthplace, Réunion Island?

I want the music I make to be different. Music in Réunion Island, for example jazz, is often combined with the traditional music called Maloya. A tradition that has been passed on for generations. The music is absolutely in my blood, but I want to be the guy doing something different. I want people to think “where is this guy from?” with the answer to be “he is from here, but singing in English and making a new kind of music”. Traditionally, I should be singing in French or in Creole but I don’t. I hope in one of my future projects I can use my native language but for the start of my music career, I just want to be different.

You said earlier you have a connection with soul music. In your song “You” I feel a bit the Motown sounds from the 1980s, especially in the background beat of the refrain. Does the soul music from Detroit inspire you?

What is interesting in the song “You” is this funky vibe. The best part of the song is the baseline. The baseline can be considered old fashion. If I have to describe my music, it is a new wave of soul. We took the basics in the old fashion way, and then we added something new to it which creates an interesting vibe.

You are now living and making music in Prague, Czech Republic. I’m curious about how the city has an impact on your music. What are the benefits of living in Prague, and what is holding you back?

I am new to singing, I started about 3 years ago, and Prague is a great place to start when you are new to the music scene.

Prague is also slightly cheaper to launch a music career compared to other capital cities in Europe. If I would compare this to cities such as Berlin or London, I can say that Prague offers more possibilities for musicians who finance their careers themselves. Just so you understand, the cost of making and producing one song is high and it’s an investment you must make if you aspire to be a musician. Once the song is ready to be recorded and released, you must hire a sound engineer, rent the recording studio, pay supporting musicians, and in my case cover the costs of a music video production. This all adds up and the total sum can be considered less here. I’m also investing a lot in developing my vocal skills, I’m taking lessons with a singing coach to better support the needs of my music and so, bring it to the next level.

For the future, especially when I’ll start performing again, I can see a challenge. Perhaps Prague can be challenging when looking for opportunities to promote my music and to perform it live. There is a great scene with open-minded people that will appreciate my music, however, the scene is not so big compared to for example London. Performing at a different club every week might not be possible here but nevertheless, I’m going to take every opportunity that comes my way.

Could you describe your creative process? How do you start writing a new song, and how long does the process take?

I mentioned, I’m new and still learning. I don’t know all the techniques of how to create a song. But this creates creativity and I learn while doing it.

I always start with finding the musical idea, or hook, because it is something repetitive and it can define the vibe of the songs. I do this by looking for chord progressions on the guitar. Once I have the basic idea, I keep repeating it, keep experimenting, and keep improvising until I find the catchy riff for the song. Then I continue working on the verse and bridge. I also work with producers and together we create the beats and right bpm for the songs.

For the song “Holidays” I spent at least a month to have the track fully done.

What’s next for you in 2021? Anything you are looking forward to or any goals you set for yourself?

I want to further develop and make the music I’ve already created even better. 2020 was not an easy year, we could not record the way we wanted, and a lot of live performances were canceled. We were in a hurry to record my songs because the reserved studio time was being canceled as a result of the restrictions around the coronavirus. Also, my vocal lessons were canceled what limits me. I was not fully satisfied with the result, I can be honest about this.

In 2021, I will take my time, I’m currently writing some new songs that will be released during the year, and hopefully, for these songs, we will not be restricted. I also hope for more opportunities to connect with my fans as they expect me to perform. They want to know how I am behaving on stage as well. Live concerts are important to me, not only for promotional reasons, but they will help me become a better musician as I don’t have a lot of experience in it. It even scares me to be in front of people and sing my lines.

I released 3 tracks, and personally, I am the most pleased with “Holidays” (video). I want to do something even better with my next songs.

All music by Ricky LA is available on Spotify and you can follow him on social media:

Are you a musician and are you interested in being interviewed? Contact me