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Soul Review: Pixar’s Poignant Film Is Jazz What The Docter Ordered For Your 2020 Existential Blues

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If you asked me what movie was I looking forward to in 2020, I’d say sit down, buddy, you’re not ready for that conversation. It’s too soon to talk about all that we have lost, and how we’re going to have to wait for a whole freaking year to watch Dune. And how more than enjoying Wonder Woman 1984 in the theatre, I’m going to be paranoid about catching COVID. Let’s not even get to Bond, and hope that 2021 has No Time To Die and we’re rid of the virus. What I can tell you about though, is one of the movies that I was eagerly waiting for, and which is finally coming to our screens is the Disney Pixar animated feature, Soul! It’s co-directed by Pete Doctor, who gave us the funny and poignant Inside Out, amongst others, and playwright and screenwriter Kemp Powers. They’re joined in writing credits by Mike Jones. Soul stars the voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, and Angela Bassett. And of course, how can we forget, the jazz, which is the soul of Soul, with music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and jazz compositions and arrangements by John Batiste.

Now can I just say, Soul is easily one of the best films I’ve watched in 2020, mostly because it is exactly the pick-me-up that we needed for the existential crisis that the year has put us in?

 

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What is Soul about?

Sounds like we’re in a philosophy class, aren’t we? Well, Pixar continues down the path paved by Inside Out, where it gave us a peek into what makes us, us. While Inside Out was a delve into our head and our human emotional range, Soul goes a little deeper, and gets rather metaphysical as it looks into our, well, soul. Literally.

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle-school band teacher who thinks he is born to play jazz. His disapproving mother Phylicia Rashad) doesn’t think so and wishes he kept his salaried, pensioned, health insurance giving job stays. After a former student, Curly (QuestLove), seeks him out, Gardner scores the chance of a lifetime to play at the best jazz club in town for Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), a famous and respect jazz musician and saxophone player. But his excitement causes him to not look where he goes, and just like that he’s dead.

As he plummets, he’s ascending to a stairway to The Great Beyond, the only reluctant soul amidst an avalanche of other souls who’re welcoming this reprieve from life on Earth. Not Joe though, not right before his life is finally going to start! His frantic escape attempt lands him in The Great Before. A whimsical pastel-coloured place where new human souls get their personalities—quirks, habits, interests, and something called as a ‘spark’ (their life’s purpose, it would seem), BEFORE they can come to Earth. Only once they find their spark, can they earn the badge that lets them drop to Earth and begin their life.

To help these souls find their personalities and spark, they sometimes need mentors. The keepers of The Great Before, very Picasso-esque human figures all named Jerry, mistake Joe for a mentor and assign to him Soul No. 22 (Tina Fey). She’s absolutely the toughest blob to crack, and many greats (Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, etc) have tried. 22 just can’t find her spark, because she doesn’t really want to live her life. She’s happy where she is.

But Joe Gardner is determined to return to his life and 22 is the way he’s going to get to do it. As he tries to help 22 figure out what’s great about living, he ends up discovering a few things about what living really means.

Soul is technologically the best Pixar film to date!

It’s really hard to not like animated movies that come out of the Disney Pixar house. But this has been long established that their stories are all heart. But does the brain work equally efficiently is what makes or breaks the film for many. Soul, according to me, does a spectacular job with everything, from the way the African American characters have been designed to the CGI that makes them look so darn real. I found New York City come alive in Soul’s animation! And every time the camera closed in on the musicians playing their instruments, people on the Subway or the barber cutting hair, I had this look of wonder in my eyes. It felt so real!

 

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I love the designs of The Great Before as this purple grass covered field, The Great Beyond as this escalator of sorts with a bright white sphere at the end, and the lost souls too. Since it is a Disney film, death had to be wrapped in something adorable. So the souls were these cute little blobs that reminded me of Minions, both in the sounds they made and the humour they infused the story with. Even the whole process of Joe’s death, falling off the escalator into The Great Before and this mysterious place called The Zone were designed in a way to be engaging and less overwhelming for kids, while still conveying the deeper meaning of something as dark as a ‘lost soul’ to the adults.

 

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Post the trailer release, I came across a few tweets from African Americans who were pleased that the movie was finally representing black men authentically. And I suppose that’s a great achievement for Pixar since Soul is their first film with a predominantly black cast.

The music is the heart and soul of the film, not just because it is a film about a jazz musician. It’s a Pixar film so the music has got to fill in the gaps and make you feel too. A very veiled reference that you’ll get once you watch the film, but composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and John Batiste must’ve really made quite a few trips to The Zone while composing this one! I usually listen to a lot of jazz instrumentals when I am writing, and guess what’s on my playlist right now?

Can I love Tina Fey anymore? The answer is yes, yes I can!

 

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Jamie Foxx makes for an excellent Joe Gardner as he does his thing and charms us all. Even Angela Bassett as jazz player Dorothea Williams and Phylicia Rashad as Joe’s formidable but eventually a softie mother is her usual amazing self. The voice cast of Soul does a pretty great job of making us fall in love with their respective characters. But my heart belongs to two women in particular.

Tina Fey is so amazing, I’ll need a few years to talk about her. In Soul, though, she’s playing a not-yet-born-but-almost-an-adolescent soul who is smart, funny, and pretends to not care but cares too deeply. Fey modulates her voice so well to sound androgynous; she could be a young girl or a boy. At several points, she sounds so different I had to remind myself it was Fey! Thanks to her, 22 is someone you instantly fall in love with and feel for but not in an “Oh she’s cute” way, but an “Oh, this person seems fun and adorkable” way!

The other is Rachel House as Terry, a soul counter in The Great Beyond, who notices that Joe’s soul is missing and then drops to Earth to locate him and bring him back. Armed with an abacus and yet another Picasso structural design, Terry is one of my favourites in Soul! And House does a phenomenal job of making us want to both run from Terry and sit and laugh at them!

Soul’s soul lies in its poignant, cleverly funny storytelling and authentic world-building

When I see Pixar movies, I sit for hours sometimes, wondering what must be going on in the heads of these guys to come up with such abstract ideas! And lately, as Disney moves away from the unreal to stories about the real human experience, this has been a constant thought. Soul might seem like a film for kids, but it is most certainly for people like you and me, who like Joe Gardner, think they already know what their life’s purpose is. Or like 22, think that they’re never going to find it. But the beauty and magic of Pixar is, that it has people who can take such concepts, Disney-fy them, and present to us a story that resonates with children and adults alike.

The makers of Soul don’t try to explain the concepts too much which, as you can imagine, would get so convoluted because it is all so meta, right? And yet, Pete Docter, Kemp Powers and Mike Jones manage to put forth so many of these concepts—life, death, soul, a human life’s purpose—lucidly. I love the imagination of a ‘Great Before’ that caters to the whole Nature vs Nurture debate, that says we’re born with certain traits and qualities but they don’t always determine who we are or how we live our lives. I also love knowing that there are Jerrys and Terrys running around with notepads and abacus, keeping track of life and death. And how our bare-naked souls look like little floofy blobs glowing with this other-worldly incandescence, and actually happy to be on Earth.

 

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On Disney+ Hotstar is a documentary called Inside Pixar, and the first episode features Soul co-director Kemp Powers talking about a scene that he wrote which is instrumental in getting the African American soul of the film right. He describes how the barbershop scene was born out of his own personal experience as an African American man. And if that tiny detail impresses you, then that’s just how particular the makers of Soul have been about its world building.

The writing is funny in a very clever, organic way in that it falls back for the poignant moments and then falls right in. I loved the training montage of 22 with the greats of the world. Simple things like those name tags on the walls of 22’s hideout or Joe’s pants tearing up and leading him to a teary reunion… they were all so splendidly written!

 

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The light’s too bright at the end of the tunnel

The only reason I’m docking half a point from the rating of Soul, a film I’ve absolutely come to adore, is that despite the lucid storytelling, the film juggles with a lot of confusing meta concepts. What’s more, in the end, it becomes a tad difficult to pinpoint what exactly it is trying to say.

Death, the purpose of life, what it means to be alive, astral travelling, there’s a lot happening in Soul. TBH, I would love for spin-off films now that explore these concepts. Just gimme a story about Moonwind’s astral adventures or Terry as Dwight Schrute from The Office and I am sold! But that’s the thing, right? That lightbulb moment, that epiphany that jolts Joe to the final realisation, I understand what’s happening. The subject is a tricky one, where something you’ve waited your whole life for happens and suddenly you don’t feel the euphoria you expected to feel. But it feels a little abrupt, and could’ve maybe been handled better.

Why Soul is the perfect way to pull the shutter down on 2020!

Do you know what Catch 22 means? It’s this paradoxical situation which has contradictory rules which make it hard to escape the situation. For example, to get a job, you need experience. But how can you get experience without a job?

If you look at Soul No. 22, she is highly uninterested in living a life. Possibly because she doesn’t know what it is to live. And to know what it is to live, SHE HAS TO LIVE FIRST. Do you get the Catch 22 situation that Soul No. 22 is in? (Hey writers, please confirm if my theory makes sense?)

Remember the first time you tasted something? Your firsts are often moments when you’re so glad to be alive to experience what you are feeling in the moment. Joe Gardner became so obsessed with his love for jazz and the belief that he was ‘born to’ only play jazz, that he forgets to do everything else that the world offers to him. He misses so many firsts because there is just that one first he cares about. He forgets to live. For No. 22, it’s not Joe, but perhaps a bite of pizza, food she has never tasted before or love she hasn’t felt before , that teaches her the most important thing about life—it is worth living.

For a lot of people, the pandemic has been one huge existential crisis. It has either stopped them from doing the things they thought they were born to do or was their purpose in life. Or it has made them obsessed with doing more of it. Either way, they’ve forgotten to really live. And watching Soul, watching Joe and 22 discover what living really means is exactly the reminder we need to start really living our lives. Or as 22 puts it, jazzing!

 

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Verdict: Don’t miss this bright light at the end of the 2020 tunnel!

On Spotify, there’s a podcast hosted by writer and co-director Kemp Powers called Soul Stories. In a recent episode, he talks to Jamie Foxx about the people and music that inspired him as a person. Foxx tells him about the one time when he was playing jazz with musician Ray Charles (Foxx starred in the biopic of the soul music pioneer, Ray, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar). Foxx hit a wrong note, and Charles told him, “Take the time out to hit the right notes, because that’s what life is. Taking the time out to hit the right notes.” And guys, that’s exactly what Soul’s trying to tell us, as it helps us find our soul in a very lost year.

This makes Soul ‘jazz what the Docter ordered’ for our existential blues in 2020!

Soul will exclusively stream on Disney+ Hotstar Premium from December 25, 2020.

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