▶︎ Soul streams on Disney+ from 25 December 2020.
Soul is Pete Docter’s first directing job since replacing John Lasseter as Pixar’s chief creative officer in June 2018, on which he shares the reins with Kemp Powers, the first person of colour to co-direct a Pixar film. (Soul is also the first Pixar film to feature a Black protagonist.) Docter most recently directed Inside Out (2015), a wildly inventive look at a child’s interior life, and Up (2009), a meditative, elegant tale of love, grief and ageing. When Docter is on board, one or more of life’s big questions is usually tackled with significant freshness of thought and insight.
Powers has just successfully adapted his play One Night in Miami…, a searing look at the Black experience set during the civil rights era, directed by first-timer Regina King. On paper alone, Soul is an auspicious meeting of minds.
Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is an aspirant jazz musician and part-time school music teacher in a beautifully rendered New York City, under pressure from his widowed mother Libba (Phylicia Rashad) to forsake his dreams of performance and take the full-time pay cheque his school offers.
Joe receives a phone call from drummer pal Curly (voiced by Questlove, a mean skinsman himself in real-life Philly hip-hop stalwarts The Roots) – would he care to audition for a spot playing piano that night with venerable saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett)? Joe leaps at the chance like Miles Davis pursuing a new sound. An initially sceptical Dorothea gives him the gig thanks to his prowess as a pianist but jubilant Joe is so excited he walks out into traffic and promptly falls down a manhole.
Regaining a form of consciousness as a luminous blue spirit on a moving path to The Great Beyond, Joe scrambles off his unwanted route to the afterlife and down to The Great Before, a place where new souls must meet stringent requirements before being allowed to earth. Here he meets 22 (Tina Fey), who can’t tick all the boxes she needs to get to earth but is not so much a lost soul as an indifferent one. But when whacky soul buccaneer Moonwind (Graham Norton) helps the pair reach earth, 22 becomes trapped in Joe’s body in hospital while Joe becomes caught inside a cat lying on his bed. The body-swapped duo escape into New York, with Joe desperate to play his show and 22 increasingly interested in city life.
Joe’s attempt to achieve happiness through his professional ambitions will hit home for many. His modest desire to play a few club gigs in a jazz quartet are not wildly unachievable (in pre-Covid times, at least) for a man with clear musical talent. His plight lends real pathos – the things we want in life that are just out of reach hurt far more than when we fail to attain an impossible dream.
22’s heartbreaking struggle, meanwhile, is arguably even more profound. She just wants to feel something, anything: to experience enough passion to be allowed to live. Her story arc appears to be an allegory for fighting depression, and its depiction and resolution is as moving as anything in Pixar’s back catalogue, especially when she finally begins to love life. A barbershop scene when she (speaking as Joe) fascinates the listening punters with philosophical chat – though Joe would previously never pass comment on anything except jazz – illustrates this brilliantly.
While body-swap plot devices have been overdone, this detracts little from the overall quality of the work. Docter and Powers (who co-write with Mike Jones) have an impressive, expressive voice cast working at the height of their powers. Foxx and Fey are their typically funny, charismatic selves, with sparkling support from Richard Ayoade and Rachel House in addition to Bassett, Rashad and Questlove. Appropriately for a film about a man seeking musical excellence, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross deliver a glassy synth score of ethereal beauty when Joe and 22 navigate through the after- and before-lives, while Jon Batiste’s lively jazz invigorates several earthbound scenes.
Correction (2 February 2021): this review misnamed the director of One Night in Miami… as Regina Hall. It has now been corrected to Regina King.
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