'Oh hell ya': musicians react to Pixar Studio's Soul

The animated feature about a jazz musician is striking a chord for its accurate portrayal of performance and the artistic imperative.

The movie about a middle-school band teacher is striking a chord for its portrayal of musical performance

In Pixar Studio's Soul, Joe Gardner is a middle-school band teacher who gets the opportunity to play the gig of a lifetime. (Pixar Animation)

This article contains spoilers.

If you've got any musicians in your circle of friends, chances are they've been enthusing non-stop about Soul, Pixar Studio's latest animated feature, which was released on Dec. 25 via Disney+.

"I've watched Soul three times now, all over the Christmas weekend with my wife," saxophonist Jesse Ryan admitted to CBC Music. "The first two times, my wife fell asleep — I know right? How could she? — but we watched it all the way through together on the third time."

Directed by Pete Docter (Up, Inside Out), Soul tells the story of Joe Gardner (voice: Jamie Foxx; piano: Jon Batiste), a jazz pianist who teaches band at a middle school in New York City. One day, Joe gets called to fill in at the last minute in the quartet of famed saxophonist Dorothea Williams (voice: Angela Bassett; sax: Tia Fuller), who's playing a gig at the Half Note. This is the opportunity of a lifetime for Joe.

"The scene where Joe goes to audition for Dorothea stood out for me simply because it unapologetically celebrates instrumental jazz," wrote guitarist Michael Occhipinti to CBC Music. "It's so rare that small instrumental jazz groups playing clubs are presented as the thing that great musicians legitimately aspire to. Usually a jazz band in a movie would add a singer to make it more inviting to a general audience, or they'd do a big band set piece with snapping or dancing. In Soul, they make playing instrumental music a dream gig."

While auditioning for Dorothea in one of the film's most hair-raising scenes, Joe gets into a flow state, or "the zone" — a place somewhere between the physical and the spiritual.

"I definitely identified with this portrayal," said saxophonist Steve Kaldestad, a self-described "big fan" of Pixar films who renewed his Disney+ membership on Christmas Day just to watch Soul with his wife and two daughters. "During these months of being confined to the house it's been further confirmed to me that performing or even just practising is extremely therapeutic and important for my mental health."

Occhipinti also reacted favourably to that scene: "Jazz is complex and to improvise well, you need to understand a lot about how chords and scales are constructed (so it's not as simple as 'make stuff up') and be absolutely comfortable playing with and against rhythm. We all love to play with great musicians because the basic elements of music (keeping the form, making sure the tempo doesn't speed up or slow down, etc.) are secure, and we are free to take chances and focus on creating a musical dialogue. If it gets to a point where we're no longer aware or monitoring ourselves thinking about the music (for example, 'this scale goes well with this chord'), that's pretty magical. There are times when I've heard live recordings of myself and thought, 'How did I play that?' because it seems like I had gained additional technique or played something better than what I might have planned or practised, and it's a wonderful, but elusive feeling."

It's unusual that a film takes the time to 'get it right' with the musical art form we love so much.- Steve Kaldestad

Such scenes from Soul have been resonating with musicians not only for their compelling thematic content, but also because of the care taken by the film's creators to accurately depict musical performance.

"The attention to detail was outstanding," reflected trombonist Hillary Simms, one of CBC Music's 30 hot Canadian classical musicians under 30 for 2020. "Normally, instrumental music in movies looks fake." She points to the wedding scene at the beginning of Love Actually as a particularly egregious example: "When the wedding guests stand and start playing instruments, it's very obvious they're not actually playing. The trumpet player breathes when there's music playing, and the trombone gliss should have started in sixth position whereas the guy barely moves the slide."

These blunders may not catch the eye of the average viewer, but for musicians they're a deal-breaker. "I was super impressed that Soul's creators took the time to consult with Terri Lyne Carrington, Herbie Hancock, and other notable jazz heavies," explained Kaldestad. "The details like Joe's school band working on 'Things Ain't What They Used to Be' (with credit given to composer Mercer Ellington up on the blackboard), and being able to clearly make out the album covers of Thelonious Monk and Max Roach LPs — it's unusual that a film takes the time to 'get it right' with the musical art form we love so much."

"From the scene with Joe playing the piano in the classroom where his fingers are the focal point, to Dorothea's warming-up scene, to the performance-reel scene at the gig itself, it was all lifelike and I felt like I was watching actual musicians," added saxophonist Ryan.

Unfortunately, Joe's debut with the Dorothea Williams Quartet is imperilled early in the film when, distractedly leaving his audition, he falls through an open manhole cover. The next thing we know, his iridescent little soul is riding an astral conveyor belt, on his way to the Great Beyond.

Of course, Joe is still fixated on his gig with the Dorothea Williams Quartet, and at this point the film becomes preoccupied with Joe's efforts to reconnect his soul with his body back on Earth so he can get to the Half Note on time — an endeavour that's fraught with Freaky Friday-style mixups. To do so, he swindles his way into the Great Before, a place all souls go to find their life's purpose before they become people on Earth. That's where he meets 22 (Tina Fey), a soul whose low self-esteem engenders a fear of being crushed by life below.

'Oh hell ya'

Finding one's purpose in life is best illustrated through Connie (voice: Cora Champommier; trombone: Andy Martin), a 12-year-old student at Joe's middle school in whom he sees a spark.

Early in the film, Connie goes into the aforementioned "zone" during a band rehearsal, eliciting her classmates' derision and Joe's admiration.

"Many of my colleagues and I have experienced that sense of awe when a particular student, like the young trombonist in the film, plays and you can hear immediately not just that they are a great, serious musician, but that they have a passion for music that is so outside of what mainstream culture lets them hear," said Occhipinti.

Later, Connie stops by Joe's apartment for a lesson, and tells him she's ready to give up on music before wowing him with a solo in his stairwell.

"Oh hell ya," posted trombonist Simms on Facebook, drawing attention to Connie's scenes.

"I, and I can guarantee many other musicians, have felt this at one point in our education or careers," she explained. "The feeling of not being good enough, the constant critiques we give ourselves and from our mentors, and the very competitive atmosphere most music schools encourage build up from time to time. Being a mentor and teacher myself, I also see many younger students reacting this way and getting self-conscious. This was an incredibly realistic scene and it resonated."

Another aspect of Soul that's resonating with musicians is its celebration of an African-American art form. This is, after all, Pixar's first feature film with a Black protagonist.

"In the scene where Joe's dad takes him to a jazz club for the first time, he calls it Black improvised music, referencing a very real cultural dialogue the music has had," Occhipinti pointed out. "They rightly recognize that jazz is also the domain of women instrumentalists (so it's great that Dorothea is a saxophone player, modelled on Tia Fuller). The bassist is also a woman, and a subtle reminder that jazz is also a global music: the bassist is modelled on Linda May Han Oh, born in Malaysia, raised in Australia, and now one of the busiest bassists in the U.S."

In addition to accurately representing jazz, Soul is full of humour for the musician viewer.

"I laughed when 22 said 'jazzing' and Joe said that was definitely not a thing," noted Kaldestad, adding, "jazz means a lot of different things to a lot of people."

The film also pokes fun at jazz musicians' obsessive tendencies, for instance in the scene at the barbershop when Joe (inhabited by 22's soul) gets a haircut from Curley (Questlove) and the conversation is not about jazz for a change.

"Great lesson in taking an interest in people and not just being caught up in yourself," Kaldestad continued. "These writers obviously know some bona fide, self-absorbed jazz musicians!"

'I loved the red awning and the stairs leading down to the Half Note jazz club, à la Village Vanguard.' — Steve Kaldestad (Pixar Animation)

And what musician can't relate to Joe's relationship with his mother (Phylicia Rashad), who urges him to give up gigging and accept the full-time teaching job at his middle school?

"This is a really important point because it is so common among musicians," said Occhipinti. "When we see Joe get offered the full-time position and hesitate, that's real and, from my perspective, understandable…. It doesn't mean that as a part-timer Joe's not a great teacher or that he in fact doesn't love it. [But] quite frankly, many of us turn down or don't pursue full-time teaching gigs for the same reason: because we want the freedom to take the gigs we want to and recognize that teaching full-time was never our goal."

Late in the film, Joe is on the sidewalk outside the Half Note, having finally reunited his soul with his body and played his first gig with Dorothea. He admits to feeling a bit deflated after the excitement of the concert. As she waits for her cab, Dorothea tells him a parable that encapsulates the film's essence.

"I heard this story about a fish," she begins. "He swims up to an older fish and says, 'I'm trying to find this thing they call the ocean.' 'The ocean?' the older fish replies, 'That's what you're in right now.' 'This', says the young fish, 'this is water. What I want is the ocean!'"

For a PG-rated animated feature, Soul touches on some lofty concepts, but for Ryan, the film succeeded in presenting them in a fun, engaging way. "There is no one purpose in life, it's all the moments that make it fulfilling," he reflected. "As a musician, I identify with the hustle of being goal-oriented and how being hyper-focused can cause you to miss very profound simple moments."