Soul: Outtakes, by David Bax
In the movies, all jazz musicians are struggling jazz musicians, nobly suffering the slings and arrows of a cold, modern world while bearing the flame of jazz, keeping alive the last symbol we have left of a past we no longer appreciate or even acknowledge. It’s every bit as affected and corny as the dumb little jazz hat that Joe (voiced by Jamie Foxx) wears throughout most of Peter Docter and Kemp Powers’ Soul. It’s also, for the record, at odds with the actual state of jazz today, a genre which continues to change, grow and surprise. Yet, despite all that, it turns out this fakey jazz stuff can still make for an effective movie.
Joe is a middle-aged middle school band teacher who still sees teaching as his day job while pursuing a career as a jazz pianist that has never materialized. His desperation leads him–through plot developments I’ll do my best not to reveal, though mild spoilers await below–into “The Great Before,” the realm where unborn souls await the “spark” of passion that will send them to Earth and into the body of a new person. One such soul, known as 22 (Tina Fey), has been waiting millennia for their spark. Once Joe and 22 are thrown together, they go on a journey through realms physical and metaphysical, searching for their purposes.
Again, I’ll do my best not to reveal too much of the plot of Soul. That’s difficult, though, because one of the film’s delights is the way it keeps changing the game. Just when you think you’ve settled into a Here Comes Mr. Jordan mode, it becomes Ghost or Freaky Friday or, God help me, The Adjustment Bureau. The shape-shifting keeps Soul light on its feet and keeps your eyes wide open.
All the better to take in Docter and Powers’ inspired visual flair. That inspiration is literal in the case of Joe’s journey to the great before, which specifically references 2001: A Space Odyssey. Just as psychedelically fascinating are the before realm’s administrators, each composed of a single line drawing that retransforms as they move across space. When one of them must come to Earth, they blend in with and traverse across the walls in a sequence that recalls the great art museum scene in Joe Dante’s Looney Tunes: Back in Action.
These outlandish, hallucinatory touches work as well as they do because they exist alongside Soul‘s realism-inspired (but not quite realistic) picture of life on Earth. Specifically, this is a portrait of Black city life painted with the warm, idyllic glow we tend to reserve for movies about small towns. Soul is a reminder that there’s just as much “Americana” to be found in New York City alleyways as in dirt roads along the plains.
Like most pop culture visions of life beyond life, Soul goes out of its way to avoid including religion. Maybe doing so would have given its philosophical questions more form but it remains a passionate, if one-sided, argument for free will over predestination.