Pixar’s latest offering, Soul, starts with middle school students badly playing instruments in a music class. “1, 2, 3, 4… Stay on the beat,” their teacher, Joe Gardener (Jamie Foxx), nervously instructs. But Joe’s face lights up when one of his students, Connie, gets lost in the beat.
Connie’s classmates make fun of her, but Joe explains to them the value of moments such as this; the value of getting lost in the music and taking your audience along. “See the tune is just an excuse to bring out the you,” he tells his students. There is a rich history of jazz improvisation; indeed, as the film goes on to establish, jazz is also referred to as ‘Black improvisational music.’
Joe, who happens to be Pixar’s first black lead, is a struggling pianist in New York, who also teaches music part-time at a school. His passion for jazz is evident every time he speaks about it.
In 2016, another Hollywood flick brought us a struggling pianist who would passionately talk about ‘pure’ jazz to anyone who would listen. This was La La Land’s Sebastian (Ryan Gosling).
Pixar’s brilliant Soul gives clear evidence that the story of jazz can be very different, depending on who is telling it
While the film received considerable critical acclaim, almost going on to win the best picture Oscar, it was also criticised for presenting jazz from the lens of a White protagonist. While some undermined this criticism as ‘PC (politically correct) nonsense’, years later, Soul gives clear evidence that the story of jazz can be very different, depending on who is telling it.
To state the obvious: race matters. Whose story it is to tell, matters. And who is telling the story matters and impacts the way the story is told.
The moment Joe knew he has to play jazz for the rest of his life, he was with his father. It was his father who introduced him to this music. It was his father who inspired him, much like Joe is trying to inspire his students. Jazz did not start with Joe, and it will not end with him. Unlike Sebastian, Joe does not feel he needs to save jazz. Instead, he recognises that there are great musicians doing great work out there, and only wishes for his shot.
Joe is based in New York City. But it is not the New York you have seen in many Hollywood animated films. It’s a New York with jazz clubs that proudly display photos of Black musicians on their walls. It’s a New York that has barber shops where individuals from the African-American community come together, laugh and chat while getting haircuts.
It’s a New York rarely seen on screen, a notable recent exception being Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), which also happened to feature a black protagonist.
It is this treatment that makes Joe’s world feel authentic.
It is not just New York City that Soul presents in a refreshing manner. Joe has a near-death experience and his soul ends up in another dimension. The way the ‘Great Beyond’ is visualised is a delight, making one wish one was watching the film at a cinema. The brilliant jazz score also deserves to be heard in a theatre, but, alas.
In the other dimension, Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has always been too afraid to go to earth. 22 helps Joe examine his outlook on life. She appreciates the musician at the subway station, the bagel bought from the street, the trees swaying in the wind.
It takes Joe being literally transported from his body, for him to realise the value of the day to day. Of simply living. Of having a passion, and a life beyond that passion.
It could be argued that Soul raises many big questions, but never really gives an answer more complex than: live your life. But as the world fights a pandemic, this message of hope feels more urgent than ever before.
Rated PG for thematic elements and some language
Published in Dawn, ICON, January 17th, 2021