You got Soul?
We watched Pixar's latest animated offering Soul today. It really allows the broad musical talents of Jean Batiste to shine, as well as the lighting artistry (no pun intended) of lighting director Ian McGibben. They bring an immersive richness to a film that hinges on the ability to visually convey non-visual sensations - the taste of pizza, the smell of the subway, the feeling of sunshine on your skin, and the transcendent beauty of being present in the moment. Pete Docter's decision to bring on Kemp Powers as co-director and leader of the internal culture trust paid dividends. If one of the themes of Soul is about taking a walk in someone else's shoes, both literally and figuratively, this creative team has delivered characters and an environment so authentic as to create almost a sense of homesickness for experiencing unique, real life community: We see a vision of Queens that many of us have never seen on the big screen before, and some may be wondering if they'll ever see again IRL.
Yet for all its diverse innovation, I found myself feeling more than a little rankled at the end of it, and it's taken me a while to tease out why. The film makes a point to note that, even though we have one dream or one love at one point in our lives, circumstance and life at large may force us to change and make compromise, ending up living out an entirely different dream and drawing just as much joy for it. The main character, Joe, discovers that in his single minded pursuit of a jazz career, he never bothered to ask the barber that he has seen regularly for years what his hopes and dreams were. But there's someone else that I feel the movie owed that conversation to: Joe's mother. She has a successful tailor business that supported her husband's musical aspirations, and perhaps for a time, her sons. But her insistence that he find a job that has health insurance and a regular paycheck somehow causes him to view her as the antagonist who never believed or approved of him and his gifts. He is so caught up in her antagonism that he never bothers to asks if being a tailor was her dream. He assumes that if someone is good at something, they must love it. It could be that she was just good at it and it brought in regular money so that's what she stuck with to support her family, much like the barber did. They both had to subordinate their skill set and their aspirations in order to support a family. Joe, who is single and childless, doesn't....So why does he get to wallow in a mid-life crisis of unfulfilled creative ambition because he hasn't made it in an industry created by and for people who look like him? I kind of find it hard to feel sorry for him - there is literally nothing to stop him from practicing 4+ hours a day and auditioning three times a week and doing all the things that you need to do to "make it". Did the barber ever feel like taking his hair cutting job was "settling" just because he did it for his daughter? How does his mother really feel about her job? Even when Joe lands a professional gig and has a really fantastic performance night, he pouts because he "thought it would feel different".
Part of me also wonders how the tone would ring different if the main character were female. I think there would absolutely be more of a sense of "you could totally be having a relationship or a family right now, look at all you've given up for your obsession". Whether it was something being projected on her by another character, or something she authentically feels, it is something notably absent in a movie as it is. Joe is granted the luxury of ten minutes pondering a fluttering sycamore seed rather than devoting any further thought to some woman named "Lisa", who is merely a thought that is stumbled over in Joe's brain, and is never mentioned again.
And speaking of women being passed over, you don't hire Tina Fey, one of the most successful writer/producer/actors working in Hollywood today and give her this line:
Joe: Why do you sound like a middle aged white lady?
Tina Fey's amorphous abstracted blob character: Oh I could sound like anything because I'm an abstraction, I'm not really anything yet. I just chose to sound like this because it annoys people.
What the heck, Docter?! If I thought Fey had personally improved that line in her typically self-deprecating style, it may have been funny. But there is no way to know that. I can only assume it was the product of the script, which was written by men, just like all but one of their feature film scripts. Try again when the staff ratio of your production crew isn't 68% male, Pixar.
Given that the themes addressed by a man having a mid-life crisis aren't exactly important to a viewing audience age 3-12, I don't see this one being anywhere near as popular as others in Pixar's repertoire, especially since Inside Out tackled much of the same subject matter and did it in a far more interesting and compelling way. At the end of the day, it feels like One small step for Man, one giant leap for...other men.
Addendum: I feel like I need to add an addendum to my review because it's becoming clear that very few film critics understand how jazz works and are therefore totally missing its influence on the structure of the film itself.
I keep hearing critics lament that the story and concept execution was messy and hard to follow. To which I reply "HAVE YOU EVER LISTENED TO JAZZ?" (Or read philosophy pondering the nature of man and the afterlife for that matter?) To an untrained ear, this particular musical style can sound like casual train wreck. But that's cuz you ain't listening right! This movie is the same, you can't take it at face value, but neither should you over-think it or you will totally miss the experience, let alone the point. And this is a Pixar film we're talking about. *Everything* serves the narrative. There is a reason Docter chose to have Joe be a jazz musician. Not a classical musician chasing a symphony chair. Not a rock musician, or a country musician or any other type of musician. It was about jazz. Jazz is a style built on specific systems and then using those systems to riff, experiment, converse, play, and make statements about identity. As a black man, Joe would have a specific relationship to that style of music as part of his own specific identity in a way a white musician wouldn't. It connects him to his heritage broadly, but also specifically, since his father was also a jazz musician. And it wasn't just that Joe was trying to make a name for himself by himself. He was looking to perform as part of a group. If every artist in a group is doing their own thing at once, it does sound like a total mess. To play in a group is to understand one's place in that group. One must listen not just to the band leader, but also take cues from the other band members. Good jazz is the nexus of the talent of the group and the individuals within it. The micro meeting the macro. This is the theme that would later be revealed to Joe. He had spent his whole life stuck in his own head. But in the end he is able to extemporize and find fulfilment in the inspiration he draws from being present in other moments of his life - dipping his toes in the sea, playing piano with his father, sitting with a student, looking a seed, etc. The screen literally telescopes out as Joe plays, implying that at last he is connected to his place in Queens, in New York, on the Earth, in the Universe. Even if he doesn't understand why. He is a last able to let go and truly be in the moment without being lost in his own head.
I keep hearing critics draw comparisons to "It's a Wonderful Life" and it's an incredibly feeble one. If you think Joe learns his life has meaning because of the impact he had on others, I don't know what film you were watching. Interacting with others is an element, but far from the single validating factor of a person's life. Critics also seem to be pouting that Docter didn't spoon feed them the answer to the meaning of life, or that the noncorporeal abstractions of a non-physical plane were, well, too abstract.
If you walked away thinking "Well, that narrative just went all over the place and it didn't have a concrete ending and I didn't understand all of it!"
That actually is the point. It's jazz, baby. It's LIFE. It's unexpected, open ended. Parts of it don't seem to go anywhere but add to the richness nonetheless. And if it's good, you know you enjoyed yourself, even though you have no idea why, and that may bother you. And that's ok. Richard Ayoade's character says it best when he chastises Joe: "Purpose? We don't determine purpose here, where did you get that idea? You mortals with your "purpose" and "meaning of life"....So basic."
When all is said and done, the nice thing about a film like this is, unlike one's own life, you can go back and experience it as many times as you like. You may still not understand it any better. But perhaps you'll gain more levels of appreciation for it.