‘Soul’ Movie Review: Life, Jazz, and New York City

A movie about life, jazz, and New York City, Soul is a must watch film for every creative who’s ever wondered if their life has any worth. Myself included.

It starts with a moment. An off tune melody of Disney’s signature opening titles of When You Wish Upon a Star. Where Connie — a young lady about twelve years of age — holds her trombone up high inside her music classroom of M.S. 70. The ensemble, a group of kids, none of whom show any remarkable talent, play an ear splitting tune. Discordance and musical disharmony, yet at the heart of it plays Connie, who somehow, miraculously finds herself lost in jazz. The slide and wail at the metal brass, the girl is lost absolutely, in the playing of her trombone, and an improvised solo that effortlessly flows pouring at beautiful melodies. The soles of Connie’s feet giving way as if she were floating on air. Lost in the zone…

Before being surreptitiously grounded back to Earth by the sneerful cackling of her ensemble. Embarrassed, yet also, reassured. Because to her music teacher, Joey Gardner (Jamie Foxx), none of that matters. Joey praises Connie’s bravery. To live in the spark that lies the spirit of jazz. It is something magical. Something special. Something unique about losing oneself in that moment, because, according to Joey Gardner anyway, jazz brings out the most honest version of yourself.

This is what Pixar’s newest movie Soul is all about. The moments that make us feel alive. The moments that unceremoniously end. The struggle with the meanings that we attach to things. How to celebrate it. How to define it. And how to live life waking up every morning convincing ourselves that’s what we’re supposed to be. It’s the idea that creating something of worth is the only way to live a life worth meaning. All the while, absolutely forgetting, neglecting, abandoning, and admonishing, almost every bit of evidence to the contrary. A type of tunnel vision that art is the be all-end-all. The greatest thing in the whole wide universe. As a life without passion is a life without meaning. 

It is the lie creatives tell ourselves. That the moment must always take our breath away, rather than accepting the harsh reality, that life mostly consists of the moments spent merely breathing.

What Is Soul About?

A buddy adventure story about life, dreams, and everything in between. Soul follows the story of recently deceased jazz teacher, Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) and his journey into the afterlife. A place where the souls of those who died mentor those yet to be born, before fully departing off into the great beyond. 

Unwilling to accept his fate, Joe cleverly finagles his way back to Earth to accomplish his dream of playing with one of the last remaining jazz performing greats, Dorothea Williams (Angela Basset). All while playing mentor to the spirit of a reluctant to be born baby named 22 (Tina Fey). But back on this return toward Earth, things go awry, as 22 is now in the body of Joe while Joe became the hospital’s pet therapy kitty. 

And yes, I know how absolutely ridiculous all of that sounds — though not any more ridiculous as the plot to Wonder Woman 1984 — but believe me when I say this premise is golden. Filled with genuine well-researched characters constructed out of conversations made with those prominent in the New York jazz scene. 

It is a movie that’s less Woody Allen and more akin to something like The Good Place… Featuring existential philosophy without all of the rhetoric, but still delivers on a powerful lesson about living. Like the parable about what the young fish asked for from the old fish: 

“What I want is to find the ocean.”

“We’re in the ocean right now?” 

“This is water. What I want… is the ocean.”

Because the search for meaning in life is often what we’re surrounded in all along. 

Why You Should Watch Soul

The movie’s use of lighting, field depth, and textures alone, is one of Pixar’s most technically ambitious films to date.  From a writer’s perspective, this is also Pixar’s blackest film ever produced, with not only its first Black actor in a leading role in Jamie Foxx, but also, is genuinely well-researched in terms of its source material. As playwright Kemp Powers, the first Black co-director ever hired by Pixar to co-lead a project, was tasked in keeping the movie feeling as authentic as possible. A task which Powers accomplished by hiring several Black musicians and jazz consultants on retainer. There are many references to Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington in this movie. There were also major musical names signed on such as Herbie Handcock, Terri Lynn Carrington, Quest Love, Jon Batiste, and Daveed Diggs. With Jon Batiste both composing and performing original pieces for this movie. 

Yet, despite early rave reviews, for the most part, this movie was seen an afterthought. A surprise hit, but not something expected or really wanted. I say this because the marketing for this movie pales in comparison to other classics. Especially when taken into consideration that this isn’t even the only Pixar movie release for the year, as Onward also came out way back before the pandemic started. Atop of this, this movie was a shadow in comparison to the press coverage for Wonder Woman 1984; all for what was an unspoken cultural battle between Black jazz versus the first woman superhero. Because that’s how buzzwords, and sadly trends, work in the coverage age of clickbait taboo. The blame of which falls upon Disney for moving the date to compete with Wonder Woman. An unsurprising move given the company’s shady track record of not wanting to portray black protagonists, mostly, to stay in good with the Chinese film market

Soul Does All The Right Things

Pete Docter might be one of the most brilliant and heartfelt minds of a generation, being responsible for penning Pixar’s Up, Inside Out, and now Soul. He was also heavily involved in the American adaptation to Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle. Atop of adapting gems such as Wall-E, Toy Story, and really just, every major Pixar production ever created. 

Atop of this, as someone who used to play in a jazz-funk fusion band and whose bandmates later went to school for jazz composition and performance, I am familiar with the NYC jazz scene. This movie is a perfect depiction of what that life was like set in what’s a really beautiful movie about a pre-coronavirus New York City. Likewise, this was one of the most genuine portrayals of New York. From the pizza rat, to all the best food places, to what it’s like to attend jazz clubs, to the school system; this movie genuinely depicts the heart and soul of NYC in a way most places haven’t, and it made me miss that era of life tremendously. 

Everything about Soul touched on a profoundly real experience for me. As Pixar’s most acclaimed movie since Inside Out, I was genuinely taken aback how far away from your typical feel good movie this was. It was something that went away from the platitudes or the run on speeches that I, and the Jeff Wingers of the world, absolutely love doing. It was something that celebrated not the finality of things of life, death, nor humble beginnings; the moniker of that high water mark where the wave came crashing about the ocean of our lives came to pass.

To cut all the noise aside and remember that the point to life… is to live, is what Soul captures so beautifully.

Christian Angeles
Christian Angeles
Christian Angeles is a screenwriter who likes sharing stories and getting to meet people. He also listens to words on the page via audible and tries to write in ways that make people feel things. All on a laptop. Sometimes from an app on his phone.

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