Demographers estimate more than 108 billion human beings have inhabited the earth since we became something recognizable as human. That number (actually the number 108,210,121,415) figures largely in this movie, and I’m guessing that will surprise you a bit. What does the number of human beings that have populated this planet have to do with a movie about jazz?
Well, about half of the movie has to do with jazz. The story is about a musician, Joe (Jamie Foxx), not in New Orleans, but in New York, who teaches middle school band students. However, that isn’t really what he wants to do. Instead, he dreams of his real passion, playing jazz piano in nightclubs. Early in the movie, he gets a break, and it appears that his dreams are about to come true.
Except that they don’t. As with most of us, something happens that changes his life trajectory. And with that, we arrive in the other half of the movie: The Great Beyond, The Great Before, and The Zone. The great pleasures of this movie are here—in areas that probably can only be explored in an animated film. Here we aren’t dealing with people, but rather their essence, their “souls.” This movie, quite literally, explores notions of where souls come from, where they go, and what exactly we might do with them while “living.” And these are not trivializations—there is substantial food for thought, or should I say “nourishment of the soul!”
The film navigates between these two worlds with great finesse. The New York world is rich in detail and visceral experience. It is also accompanied by the terrific jazz music of Jon Batiste, an accomplished keyboardist making superb music in New York. Joe is black and he represents the first time Pixar/Disney has attempted, realistically, to depict black people in animated form. They successfully portray the variety of black skin textures and colors, adding to the human palette of animated, but real, characters.
When Joe is in the “other world,” he is recognizably himself, but adopts a visage befitting the soul community. And it is pretty hard to quibble with the design—I mean, what exactly does a soul look like, anyway? The animation in this world is simpler, using pastel colors or black and white, and why not? The complexity here is not in the visual presentation, but in the strange concoction of ideas and processes that souls undergo as they transition from one stage to another.
The other distinguishing characteristic of the other world is the music. Instead of Jon Batiste’s jazzy improvs, we get the electronic music of Oscar-winning Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, whose ethereal and cerebral tonality is so soothingly appealing. It’s difficult to imagine a better choice to represent this world.
The preparation of souls for their adventure on Earth is particularly interesting, and gets special treatment in this movie, when two souls transition to Earth and end up in bodies they were not intended to occupy. In addition to Joe’s soul, there is also Soul #22 (Tina Fey). Since these souls are numbered, imagine how long ago this one has been waiting around for a “spark” to get into a body. When #22 and Joe finally do go to Earth, the resulting switched identity sequence goes on a bit long, but it is an important part of the story. In the end, there is a definite message to this film, but I’ll leave that up to you to tease out.
So, this is an incredible movie, but I find one big flaw. Soul is almost two different movies: the New York City jazz scene and the other world. Each has its own visual and musical style, and while the characters do transition, they behave differently because the worlds are so different. I think the relationship between the essence of jazz—the harmony found in life’s spontaneity—and the essence of spark could have been illustrated more directly. Nonetheless, it is still an outstanding movie. (4.5 Stars)
Available to watch on most of your favorite streaming services (rental fees may apply) or by Netflix DVD.