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