dir: Peter Docter
You don’t know how much of a relief this was. A good Pixar movie. Again. It’s been a while.
I did not love Onward, I guess because I’m not American, and the sight of grown people being obsessed with playing catch as the be and end all of parenting and fatherhood has never resonated with me the way I guess it resonates with Americans. And it was a very elaborate and colourful way to spend millions in the service of a story so simplistic and mundane that it should have been half an hour long, and delivered by a generic episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, or Two and a Half Men or something suitably banal. And in truth Soul is probably the Pixar flicked I’ve liked the most since Inside Out, which still holds up, but which was six long and lonely years ago.
At first it seemed surprising that anyone would devote Pixar / Disney levels of resources to telling a story with a middle-aged African American protagonist, this being the world we live in, but then I guess you remember that Pixar previously had an 80-year-old pensioner as the protagonist of Up. So they can basically do whatever the fuck they want. When work on this started as well, it would have been long before the coronavirus changed everything, but it is more than likely that it was finished with people working remotely or distanced at least, which I guess is less of a problem for an animated movie than one where crews and casts have to cluster together in a studio or on a set. And doubtless Disney never would have wanted to release this only on their streaming service, though I’m sure it’s playing in a bunch of cinemas where brave souls don’t fear the virus.
I wasn’t going to see this in a cinema. No way, no day. Too risky until enough of us have the vaccine in our sweaty, desperate clutches, and lord Satan knows when that will be. But I am happy to watch it streamed through that most diabolical of streaming services, being Disney +.
So even if Disney loses a bundle on this, I think Soul is a triumph, because it’s a very enjoyable and entertaining movie, its story isn’t completely familiar and overdone, even if there are elements recognisable from other Pixar flicks, but it’s also in the service of a pretty good message about Life, you know, that thing many of us take for granted because the reality of our daily existence can vary from excruciating to staggeringly mundane even when the plague apocalypse isn’t happening around us.
It’s also a bit of an antidote to a very prevalent form of thinking that people, usually rich people, peddle to the unwashed masses as easily digestible pabulum about what purpose their lives should have or how they should follow their dreams at the expense of everything and everyone else.
It’s not overly deep in its musings, but it doesn’t have to be to sell its story well.
The main thing I want to say about it is this: it’s a beautiful film. I don’t mean just in terms of how it looks, which is exquisite in terms of animation. Most everything that occurs in the “real” world looks extraordinary anyway but realistic and somewhat stylised. The main character Joe Gardner (Jaimie Foxx) is recognisably African-American and human, tall and lanky, but they’ve wisely avoided the kinds of designs that could recall perhaps the more outright racist depictions of African-Americans in days gone by. There’s a kind of Harlem Renaissance feel to most of the stuff set in New York, and that’s fine.
Joe is a middle aged music teacher at what Americans call middle school, which is what we call Years 7 to 9. He’s not only middle everything, he’s living a life of quiet desperation. All he wishes for, all he hopes for is to get that One Big Jazz Gig and then leave all the rest behind. He loves jazz, and music, and he’s pinned all his hopes and dreams on that one thing. A former student calls him up and tells him that a jazz legend, being Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), needs a piano player, and he should audition.
He plays, and plays well, plays so well that he’s transported, in the zone, as people say, playing beautifully in a way that impresses the hard to impress Dorothea, and leads to the possibility of becoming one of her session musicians, and gigging with her every night.
But the school has also finally offered him a full time contract, which would give him health benefits, money and security, which he apparently hasn’t had until now. His mother (Phylicia Rashad), a tailor, smothers his dreams and urges him towards accepting the unsexy drudgery of the 9 to 5, but his soul yearns for Jazz greatness. And, let’s face it, who wouldn’t want to be a household jazz name like Tootsie Childs, No Talent Jones, Bossy Marmalade, Bad Check Mazursky, Ray-Ray Takamura, and my personal favourite, Shaky Premise!
They’re all from a jazz parody episode of the Simpsons, so I’m not taking credit for them. But that’s what Joe wants to be.
It’s hard, you know? You devote your life to something, completely and utterly, with the hope that some day your passion and dedication will pay off in some meaningful way, and the rest of the world either actively opposes it or, even worse, collectively shrugs its shoulders and barely even notices.
So you’re left with keeping the obsession going on your own, with the terror of meaninglessness ever growing or giving up and knowing that you devoted yourself to something that was never going to happen. Who’s strong enough to admit something so gutting? Few, certainly no one in this film, and even fewer in real life.
Joe is determined to make his dream come true. Determined is not the word. He is oblivious to everything that isn’t scoring the big gig and Making It as the next big jazz legend. All he has to do is get a nice suit and appear at the club tonight, and convince Dorothea that he’s not a flake. She keeps calling him “Teach” almost derisively, as if being a teacher is a contemptuous thing.
It isn’t. Not at all, though I guess being a bad teacher who actively tries to make the lives of their students worse would be a monster, but Joe certainly isn’t that. There’s an early scene in class where one of his students plays the trombone so well that she seems transported, enraptured by her own music, and of course the other students start giggling at her. Pieces of shit. That scene made me very irrationally angry. Connie (Cora Champommier), the trombone player, instantly regrets letting others see her passion, because it made her vulnerable, and she was mocked for it, making her feel like shit. Naturally, later on we see a scene where she wants to give up music entirely because of that mockery, despite the fact that she clearly loves music, and it loves her back, too.
Grrr. Between the beginning and that scene, a lot happens. I’m reluctant to say what exactly, but talking about the film further is impossible without mentioning the fact that Joe is not long for this jazz-infested world, and finds himself in a very different metaphysical realm.
Joe is on an astronomically huge conveyor belt, rising towards a great white singularity, only later being told it’s the Great Beyond. But but but. Joe has still so much to achieve! He hasn’t “proved” to the world, yet, that all his deprivations and fixations on jazz were worth it by playing with Dorothea at the club! He has to go back, somehow, and achieve what he had to achieve for everything to have meaning.
So if there’s a Great Beyond, then there’s somehow a Great Before, which is where souls are before they’re sent to Earth to live. It’s simple, but somehow inexplicably complex. There are newly created souls here that haven’t lived a life yet, there are these strange two dimensional beings in three dimensional space called Jerrys that shepherd these souls, and there’s also a interdimensional accountant called Terry (Rachel House) who keeps the cosmic tally of souls, and who figures out something is amiss.
There are also the souls of great beings from our history, who also inspire and advise the new souls when it comes to finding the spark that is the last stage of their development. None of this is particularly religious in how it’s depicted, and none of it can really be taken that seriously from a philosophical perspective, but it tries to posit a couple of non-mutually exclusive ideas – that when it comes to people’s personalities, a lot of that is set right from the start, due to inherited traits or the combinations thereof. In this Great Before realm, the Jerrys jokingly refer to how certain souls are sent to a place where they’re going to come out insecure or self-absorbed, and that they are going to be Earth’s problem now. Very simplistically, you’d call this idea biological determinism.
But the Jerrys would be the first and last to point out, to anyone that would listen, which doesn’t include Joe for most of the film, that these traits being instilled in the souls pre-birth doesn’t dictate the course of their lives or determine what their life’s purpose should or will be. This isn’t meant to be the fate or destiny that people used to tell each other they were bound by, or the biological ‘certainty’ those who argue about DNA, IQ and bell curves (ie. outright racists) aim for either.
The ticket to Earth for these new souls is the last element of their personality, which is their spark, that which will inspire them in life, or more broadly, the spark that inspires them about Life. Once that happens, the souls are ready to make the journey to Earth, to be born, and to live miserable lives of quiet desperation, or loud screeching lives of eternally flaming dumpster fires.
But some souls just aren’t interested. Before they’re sent to Earth, these souls just have numbers, and one soul that hasn’t been able to make the transition yet is 22 (Tina Fey), who every Jerry has failed to inspire, and every famous great person in history has also failed to mentor. She’s broken Abe Lincoln, Mother Teresa and probably Andre the Giant, though we didn’t see that part. These great souls try to get 22 to see the point of what living life on Earth would or could be like, but she’s not interested. She’s been exposed to everything, literally everything in the Hall of Everything, and none of it has ever resonated.
22 is like that cynical person who can always find a reason why you shouldn’t try anything or why everything actually sucks. There will literally always be a reason not to bother. In this interstitial place where she’s been for the equivalent of thousands of years, she’s been exposed to every type of achievement and creativity, and none of it has touched her. The senses don’t operate in this place, so the souls can’t really “feel” anything as yet except on the intellectual level. Living, on Earth, is where they can really get to connect with feelings and ideas, and other souls, and until then it’s all just theoretical.
Through the kinds of misadventure than can only happen in these kinds of stories, Joe and 22 go on a madcap adventure where they have to try to learn stuff, or come to terms with stuff, or teach each other stuff, and, really, it’s 22’s gradual acceptance that living itself can be pretty amazing, even in the most simple and banal seeming moments, that casts into relief Joe’s unwavering belief that Jazz is the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.
Pixar has no problem having its protagonists be “wrong” throughout the course of most of their stories. You could almost say it’s a common element of their plots, in that the protagonists of Toy Story, Brave, Soul, Coco, Up! etc tend to be people who think they want a particular thing, but then only when it seems too late realise that they really wanted something else, or that the “thing” they wanted most of all isn’t as important as saving someone or helping someone else. In no way would you say that Soul works out in a cookie-cutter fashion, but it certainly does follow a particular path that is fairly humanistic, that emphasises the idea that the connections we have to other people is of far greater importance than any one thing any one person could ever be obsessed with.
Back on Earth, 22 finally gets to see what is so great about being alive, and they’re really simple things, but Joe keeps going on with his old bullshit, believing that it’s his obsession with music to the detriment of every relationship he ever could have had in life that’s really of the greatest importance. He moves the equivalent of heaven and earth in order to get to the right place at the right time to play the perfect gig.
But then what? What if you achieved that One Thing, took that One Shot, and it actually worked out? What if, after that, everything didn’t immediately change, and you felt as empty and invalidated as you did before hand? What if it was only then that you realised being focused on only one thing to the detriment of everyone else wasn’t the best way to live? What if it was too late?
Well, stories are all about doing the right thing eventually, at least entertaining ones. Tragedies are all about realising only when it’s too late that you were wrong and should have done things differently. Soul is not a tragedy. Soul is a story where souls get their chance to make things right, and that’s why it’s so goddamn enjoyable and entertaining. This is top-tier Pixar stuff, and I’m very glad I got to enjoy it with my family. Only repeat viewings will show if it’s absolute top of the pops, like their absolute classics, and that takes time, but on first viewing I can say that it was hellishly enjoyable, novel, imaginative, even modestly transcendental, and a beautiful story about Life, Itself.
9 times I think I was hooked by the piano playing in the first gig scene out of 10
“ I have compassion for every soul... Except you. I don't like you.” - Soul