[Interview] Music is at the heart of Pixar’s ‘SOUL’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Pixar has taken us inside the world of toys. They’ve show us what the world of monsters looks like. They’ve even guided us through our own psyches. Now, they’re about to show us how our souls interact with the living world, but also where they go in the after-life in SOUL. 

The animated feature centers on Joe, a middling middle school music teacher living in Brooklyn. His dream, which has been differed for a few various reasons, has always been to make it big playing piano in a jazz band. One day that coveted opportunity arrives, however, on the way home, he takes a wrong step and plunges through a manhole. When he comes to, he’s been transformed into a blue blob and he’s been transported to an unfamiliar place – the beyond.

Music plays a large part of the film, not solely in Joe’s reality, but also in the ethereal state he’s been forced into. When the team at Pixar had begun pondering what hobbies and interests their protagonist could be passionate about, they thought it would involve his career. Director Pete Docter (speaking to a large group of us gathered on a Zoom call at the recent press day) says,

“Almost by fate we found this video which was from an online master class by jazz legend Herbie Hancock. We thought not only “What a great story,” but “What a perfect metaphor for life – what we are given and what we do with it.” We thought jazz is really the perfect representation. Joe has to be a jazz musician.”

Once that epiphany occurred, and the idea to assign a musical sound to each of the film’s two disparate worlds, the crucial positions opened to talented artists. Producer Dana Murray says,   

“At that moment we knew that music would just be an essential part of this film. We were incredibly lucky to partner with Jon Batiste, the pianist from THE COLBERT SHOW, to compose all the original jazz music for the score. And for the soul world we got to work with the great Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.”

Figuring out the protagonist’s career led them to discovering the essence of the character. Docter elucidates,  

“If our main character plays jazz or, as one of our consultants Dr. Johnnetta Cole calls it, “black improvisational music,” we felt that our main character needed to be black.  And to help us find Joe, we were lucky to find Kemp Powers, the acclaimed screenwriter and playwright.”

Kemp Powers, who also has co-director credit on the feature, came onto the project in 2018. At that point, the character needed a lot of work to make three-dimensional. He says,

“Joe, as we envisioned him, the character and I had a lot in common, and I realized that in many ways Joe was me. I was able to use a lot of my own personal experiences to inform writing the character. He’s 45. I’m also in my mid-40s. Joe lives in New York, which is my hometown, though Joe is from Queens and I’m from Brooklyn, and all Brooklynites know Brooklyn is better. Joe is a musician and I used to be a music critic and a musician myself.”

Diving deep to imprint personal inflections on the character came naturally to Powers. But they also researched the musical genre by including others.

“To make sure that our representation was as genuine as possible, we also turned to tons of experts outside of Pixar, including many music teachers and working jazz musicians from New York City and in Emeryville.”

In Disney and Pixar’s “Soul,” a middle-school band teacher named Joe Gardner gets the chance of a lifetime to play the piano in a jazz quartet headed by the great Dorothea Williams. Featuring Jamie Foxx as the voice of Joe Gardner, and Angela Bassett as the voice of Dorothea. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Animating Joe playing the piano was also another way to express the fluidity in the musical movements. Animator Montaque Ruffin explains,

“As a team, we needed to be honest with the things that we were not familiar with so that we may respectfully imbue it in our work. Jon Batiste was both our direct resource and cultural consultant. Not only did he share with us his insight on jazz, but he also played live performances and walked us through his thought process while doing so. We also recorded video references of Jon Batiste’s hands as he played the piano.  By having this information, not only did it allow us to inspect hand movement and finger articulation, but it also served as a visual roadmap.”

Jon Batiste was struck by the spiritual tone of SOUL’s story.

“This film has a lot of light in it. It’s a lot of light and life force energy, I like to call it. That was really the beginning of me figuring out my way into the jazz music in the film. The film has this ethereal air because it’s going between the real world in New York City and the great beyond, which is where souls are born and where they figure out their purpose and where the-where souls go once a person’s soul leaves their body in their death. I wanted to find some jazz music that had an ethereal and very universal, accessible form with melodies and harmonies had that same spirit.”

As for Batiste’s inspirations, he wanted to pay loving homage to artists like Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Roy Haynes, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Harvey Mason, Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters. 

“We channeled all of the greats that I had the pleasure of playing in jazz clubs with around the world, as well as the ones who I’ve listened to for years since I was a little boy, like Joe when he walked in the club. I wanted to channel their spirit through the types of compositions – the first thing that Joe hears when he walks into the club, “Born to Play.” That’s kind of a swing feel with some of the different harmonic textures. I imagine he was walking in the club it was probably around the 70s or the 80s and the cats were playing in that way. It was the neo-traditionalist movement during that time. So, very specific insider references, inside baseball for folks who out there can hear it.”

Hearing the jazz compositions, there’s a certain emotional color to the sound – a type of optimism and melancholy. Doctor credits the PEANUTS cartoons and MISTER ROGERS for that creative symbiosis.

“Those really implanted in me this real love for the expression that jazz has. [This] film does have that sort of joy, exuberance, which jazz does so well. It also has a kind of a melancholy and longing, which jazz does so well. There was just so many opportunities for the music to express what we were looking for thematically.”

Says Batiste,

“These kind of chords, there’s an optimism in them and it’s also a bit melancholy at the same time. There’s ways that you can modulate and change the key and it just hits you right here. It’s a very soulful feeling.”

In Disney and Pixar’s “Soul,” a middle-school band teacher named Joe finds himself in The Great Before—a fantastical place where new souls get their personalities, quirks and interests before they go to Earth. Determined to return to his life, Joe teams up with a precocious soul, 22, to show her what’s great about living. Featuring Tina Fey as the voice of 22, and Jamie Foxx as the voice of Joe Gardner. © 2020 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

For the ephemeral soul world in SOUL, the team turned to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, composers known for their work on David Fincher’s films. Their connection first came to Docter through his INSIDE OUT collaborator, sound designer Ren Klyce.

“We started talking about music and Ren, [who’s] worked with Trent and Atticus quite a lot, brought up the idea. We met with them. They seemed to really click with the film in a really heavy way that was cool. They worked a little differently than we traditionally do. With Randy Newman or Michael Giacchino, we usually lock the picture and then they start scoring. In this case, Trent and Atticus started developing themes as were we were cutting the sequences. So they threw a barrage of different music at us, at our first pass, and we’d [pick and choose]. As things stabilized and locked in, they came back and did multiple passes at some of the music for the scenes.”

Batiste states,

“Every song has those kind of harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic textures and it brings you to a place spiritually. Even if you don’t know how to describe it, it puts you in a space throughout the whole film when you’re hearing that music, it really complements what Trent and Atticus came up with. When the times in the film when our music comes together, when the worlds kind of collide, it’s amazing how it worked out.

At first we didn’t even hear each other’s music. As the process started to go along, I got a chance to hear some of the music they were making, they heard some of the music that I was making, and we came together in this one moment and it really changed the rest of the music that I was composing for the film. I got a chance to see into their process and that also leaked into the kind of spiritual tone – this ethos that we created.”

Docter reflects,

“It’s hilarious to get Trent and Atticus and Jon Batiste together because they’re so polar opposites as people. They’re both so incredibly talented and come at things from a different way that ended up being a great marriage [for] the film.”

SOUL will be on DisneyPlus on December 25.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.