SOUL, Pixar’s Metaphysical Jazz Movie With A Score By Nine Inch Nails
Even a decade into his life as an acclaimed Hollywood composer, just one Tony shy of an EGOT, it’s still wild that Trent Reznor did the music for a Disney movie. Almost as bizarre: It’s a movie centered on jazz, a genre Reznor’s music has traditionally not touched. But Pixar’s SOUL is a film that travels beyond the boundaries of our perceived reality, and within its story, Reznor and his longtime composing partner/primary Nine Inch Nails collaborator Atticus Ross make some kind of sense.
SOUL is a parable about what it means to live life to the fullest. It stars Jamie Foxx as Joe Gardner, an aging bachelor and aspiring jazz pianist in New York City stuck teaching middle school band part-time because his career as a performer has never taken off. Despite the promise of benefits and a pension, he takes no pleasure in an offer to teach full-time, which his mother (Phylicia Rashad) urges him to accept. Her remark that “Playing music will finally be your real career!” lands like a dart to his heart.
That same day, Joe receives a call from his former student Curly (Questlove), who has joined the backing band for hotshot saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett). “I would die a happy man if I could play with Dorothea Williams,” Joe remarks, a statement that will soon come to pass quite literally. Curly offers Joe a gig playing piano for the band that night. He disappears into an incredible solo — performed by Jon Batiste of Stephen Colbert’s Late Show band, who wrote the jazz music for the film — and aces his audition. (Yes, SOUL involves the bandleaders from both Colbert and Fallon.) Then, while celebrating his big break, Joe absentmindedly walks into an open manhole and perishes.
His soul ends up on a conveyor belt to the vast starry Great Beyond, which he frantically escapes because he’s not about to let his life be over just when it feels like it’s finally beginning. He tumbles off the conveyor belt and into a realm where new souls — little white circular blobs that look a bit like ghosts from a Super Mario Bros. game — are given their personalities before entering into the world. “This isn’t the Great Beyond,” explains Jerry, the personal manifestation of the universe. “It’s the Great Before. We call it the You Seminar now. Rebranding!”
There, under false pretenses, Joe takes on the role of mentor to Soul #22 (Tina Fey), who has stubbornly resisted entering into life on Earth despite guidance from the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and Mother Teresa. “I already know everything about Earth,” 22 explains, “and it’s not worth the trouble.” Joe and 22 work out a deal: If he can help her find the “spark” necessary to gain her Earth Pass and get the You Seminar staff off her back, she’ll give it to him so he can resume his life. But Terry, the accountant charged with keeping track of all the souls who pass on into the Great Beyond, is determined to locate the missing soul and set his count right.
Although Batiste’s jazz work dominates the early phases of the film, the Reznor and Ross score comes to the fore in these metaphysical segments of SOUL and later as the supernatural encroaches into life on Earth. There are ambient passages that play like more serene versions of the NIN duo’s work on other movies, but also bright, jaunty, busily blippy synth instrumentals that pleasingly evoke an ’80s instructional film soundtrack. The space-age sound works well to delineate the boundaries between Joe’s day-to-day life and the heightened reality he’s found himself in, and no matter how intense or hyperactive the score becomes, it never distracts from the visuals. I didn’t even realize how much the music was shaping the environment of the movie until a pirate ship of mystics showed up bumping Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and punctured the vibe.
The mystics have occupied themselves with rescuing lost souls, who have become trapped within their fears and neuroses. As the lead mystic Moonwind (Graham Norton) points out, these pitiful creatures aren’t so different from those in the zone, so immersed in their chosen task that they lose touch with reality. It’s a point SOUL repeatedly takes pains to make, while sidestepping details about the afterlife and the nature of the universe: If you keep waiting to fulfill (and be fulfilled by) your great purpose in this world, life might pass you by entirely. The staggeringly beautiful animation reinforces this theme, rendering a common whirlybird leaf with as much gorgeous detail as the Great Beyond’s galactic sprawl.
As SOUL plays out, obvious parallels with other recent Pixar offerings emerge. There are ties to Coco, in which a protagonist whose family poo-poos his dreams of becoming a famous musician must find his way back from the land of the dead, and to director Pete Docter’s prior project Inside Out, with its personality islands and existential crises. By exploring a vivid new cultural context and turning its focus on slightly different philosophical questions, SOUL does just enough to weave these threads into something fresh and compelling, though maybe less so for young children. Pixar movies have always played to adults as much as to kids, and with SOUL — a deep story with no preschool-friendly sing-alongs on the soundtrack, involving few young characters beyond Joe’s prodigious but self-doubting student Connie (Cora Champommier) — the balance shifts decisively toward the grownups. Even coming from a studio that has so expertly commingled big ideas with even bigger feelings within children’s entertainment, this is still a highly cerebral movie about aging, the meaning of life, and jazz.
Still, the narrative is brisk, engaging, and suspenseful enough to likely reel in viewers of all ages. There’s comedy aplenty, including lots of slapstick that plays out in the middle third, when the plot takes a left turn and the setting pivots back to Earth. (Some of the laughs also involve Paul, a frenemy played by Daveed Diggs who gives Joe a hard time but gets his comeuppance.) And, as is befitting a movie whose main character declares, “Music is all I think about,” the soundtrack slaps. It’s easy to imagine some kid seeing SOUL and becoming as intoxicated by jazz as Joe was as a teenager, or even following the thread from Ross and Reznor’s score to The Downward Spiral. (“Mommy, God is dead and no one cares.”) Or at the very least, if they grow up to learn who Nine Inch Nails are, they can marvel that the same guy who made “Head Like A Hole” soundtracked an inspirational Disney movie and it worked wonders.
SOUL premieres on Disney+ on 12/25.