Directed by Pete Docter with additional direction from Kemp Powers and written by Docter, Powers, and Mike Jones, Soul is the story of a middle school music teacher who gets the chance to play for a prestigious jazz band until he accidentally falls down a hole as he seeks to reunite his soul with his body. The film is an exploration of life and what it means of existence and to live as it’s told in a strange mixture of reality and surrealism. Featuring the voices of Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Alice Braga, Richard Ayoade, Phylicia Rashad, Donnell Rawlings, Questlove, and Angela Bassett. Soul is a majestic and evocative film from Pete Docter and Kemp Powers.
The film revolves around a middle school music teacher trying to get back to his body after falling down a manhole where he ventures into a world where he meets a young soul that isn’t eager to go to Earth where he shows this young soul what it means to live. It’s a film with a unique premise as it plays into this man who is given the chance of a lifetime to play for a prestigious jazz band in New York City as it’s something he always dreamed of yet the excitement of passing the audition has him falling down this manhole. The film’s screenplay by Pete Docter, Kemp Powers, and Mike Jones do play into this long-held desire that Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) has in wanting to be a jazz pianist ever since he was a teenager but chooses to be a middle school teacher in order to pay the bills as he is reluctant to go full-time. A former student who is playing drums for the respected and revered jazz musician Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) would get Gardner to audition for her as he passes and then falls into a manhole.
That’s only the first few minutes of the film as the script plays more into the exploration of what it means to live as well as what defines a soul where Joe is supposed to go into the Great Beyond where those who have passed are meant to go but Joe refuses as he finds himself in the Great Before. The Great Before is a place where unborn souls are there to find personalities and everything else that would define them before they enter Earth as Joe is mistaken for an instructor who is given the task to mentor an unwilling soul named 22 (Tina Fey). 22 is a character who had been given many mentors including Abraham Lincoln, Muhammad Ali, Mother Teresa, and many others but none have been able to get through to her about what it means to live as Joe shows her some of the simple ideas including music as they’re aided by a strange mystic known as Moonwind (Graham Norton) to help her out as well as take her to the place of lost souls whom he rescues.
The direction of Pete Docter, with additional contributions by Kemp Powers who is credited as a co-director, does create these massive set pieces in a world that is based on reality that is New York City but also this strange reality that is the Great Beyond, the Great Before, and other worlds where lost souls are recovered. With the help of animation directors Jaime Landes Roe, Gini Cruz Santos, and Royce Wesley, the world that Joe encounters are presented in different styles as the look of New York City as well as some of the places Joe go to each have their own sense of style that has an air of realism but also some beauty thanks to the contributions of the film’s cinematographers Matt Aspbury and Ian Megibben who help create unique lighting schemes in the way rooms are lit in the day and night with production designer Steve Pilcher, along with art directors Paul Abadilla and Tim Evatt, and visual effects supervisor Michael Fong in the creation of the Great Before with its vibrant colors and the world of lost souls that is dark and colorless. The scenes in the Great Before feature characters in these counselors who are called Jerry as they’re presented in this traditional hand-drawn animation style that is unique but also has these offbeat personalities that adds to some of the surreal elements that Joe and 22 encounter.
Docter and Powers also create the subplot as it relates to an accountant named Terry (Rachel House) who always count on those who die and are set to the Great Beyond as she notices that the count is off as it relates to Joe not going to the Great Beyond. The film’s second act is about Joe showing 22 the ideas of living where 22 would experience things that add to the joys of life through simple pleasures and encounters. Docter and Powers provide these moments that definitely echo some of ideas of pure cinema as well as surrealism in its third act as it relates to 22’s journey in trying to find her spark that would allow her to go to Earth and live. Yet, it forces Joe to have some revelations about his own life and his own pursuits of being a jazz musician as he has to help 22 to not only find her own purpose in life but also in just living for the moment and enjoy it. Overall, Docter and Powers create a rich and rapturous film about a music school teacher trying to show a young soul the pleasures and meaning of life.
Editor Kevin Nolting does brilliant work with the editing as it play into some of the humor as well as some of the drama as there is a rhythm to the cutting in its presentation of the music but also in some of the surreal elements of the film. Sound editor Coya Elliott and sound designer Ren Klyce do amazing work in the sound in some of the sound effects that are created as well as the natural sounds of certain locations and how certain objects sound in the things 22 encounters. The film’s jazz music soundtrack by Jon Batiste is incredible in the way it plays into Joe’s life and sense of improvisation in how life works while the electronic music score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross for scenes in the Great Beyond and the Great Before is probably the major highlight of the film with its mixture of ambient, throbbing electronics, and discordant industrial textures that adds to the mystical and suspenseful elements of those worlds while its music soundtrack also include pieces from Daveed Diggs, Cody ChestnuTT, Bob Dylan, a cover of the Impressions’ It’s All Right performed by Batiste, and jazz pieces from Walter Norris, Duke Pearson, Duke Ellington, and Dave Brubeck.
The casting by Natalie Lyon and Kevin Reher is superb as it feature voice appearances and cameos from Pixar regular John Ratzenberger as a subway passenger, Sakina Jeffrey as a doctor, Laura Mooney as a therapy cat owner, Cora Champommier as one of Joe’s students who gets lost in playing the trombone, Margo Hall and Rhodessa Jones as a couple of Joe’s mother’s co-workers, June Squibb as a soul that Joe meets who is about to enter the Great Beyond, Cody ChestnuTT as a subway performer, Daveed Diggs as a frenemy of Joe’s in Paul, Wes Studi, Fortune Feimester, and Zenobia Shroff as soul counselors named Jerry, and Donnell Rawlings as Joe’s barber Dez who has some unique views about life and what he could’ve done but is content with what he’s doing. Angela Bassett is fantastic as the revered jazz musician Dorothea Williams as a saxophonist/band leader who is hoping that Joe gives her what she wants while Questlove is excellent as Joe’s former student Curly who plays drums for Williams and gets Joe the chance to audition for her. Phylicia Rashad is brilliant as Joe’s mother Libba as a seamstress who wants Joe to accept the full-time teaching job and not go after his dream of being a musician knowing what his father had tried to do for years.
Alice Braga and Richard Ayoade are amazing as two soul counselors in the Great Before both called Jerry as Braga is more informative and witty while Ayoade is the funnier one. Rachel House is incredible as the soul counter Terry as an accountant who makes sure the count is precise on those who go to the Great Beyond as she becomes intent on finding Joe. Graham Norton is marvelous as Moonwind who works as a human being sign twirler by day yet is a soul who captures lost souls in the lost world and gets them back as Norton provides a comical and offbeat approach to his character who sails on a ship to the music of Bob Dylan. Tina Fey is phenomenal as 22 as a cynical soul who isn’t eager to go to Earth as she likes to mess with other souls though she reluctantly let Joe mentor her where she realizes that there are things she might want to experience. Finally, there’s Jamie Foxx in a sensational performance as Joe Gardner as a middle-school music teacher who dreams of being a jazz musician and play in a jazz band as he deals with being in a mystical world and to try and guide a young soul about the pleasures of life as he begins to question about aspects of his own life in this endearing voice performance.
Soul is an outstanding film from Pete Docter and Kemp Powers. Featuring a great ensemble voice cast, gorgeous visuals, engaging themes of existential and what makes life worth living, and an exhilarating music score from Jon Batiste, Trent Reznor, and Atticus Ross. It’s a film that isn’t just engaging and full of wit but it’s also a film that allows its audience to understand the ideas of life and what it means to live and enjoy it without trying to be heavy-handed nor be overly-intellectual. In the end, Soul is a magnificent film from Pete Docter and Kemp Powers.
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