On a conference call with the cast and director of Pixar’s Soul early last November, my main question was kind of existential: “Do you think a nation has a ‘soul,’ and can it be reborn or restored?” This was right after a gut-wrenching US election, you see, and many people were wondering about the very soul of America.
But instead, actors Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Angela Bassett and Phylicia Rashad, director Pete Docter and writer Kemp Powers steered us past the metaphysical waters and into the more earthbound aspects of Pixar’s latest animated feature, which premiered on Christmas Day in select cinemas.
Like Docter’s previous Up and Inside Out, it’s a mentoring buddy movie, with lessons about the importance of finding your true passion. Foxx is thoroughly human as fledgling jazz pianist Joe Gardner whose midlife “big break” — playing onstage at a famed club — is cut short by an open manhole. He finds himself in the Before Life, a kind of way station between this world and the next, and takes on mentoring duties for a feisty, reluctant soul (Tina Fey) who doesn’t want to be sent to Earth.
Joe and 22 (Fey) make a great team, especially when certain “changes” take place down on Earth. The look of the Before Life recalls the Surrealist and Cubist landscapes inside the little girl’s mind in Inside Out, mixed with Ancient Greece. On top of this, Soul has the most intriguing musical score ever — Jon Batiste’s jazzy, kinetic vibe, alongside Atticus Ross/Trent Reznor’s otherworldly soundscapes in the Before Life — like an audio version of the mind-body duality.
Soul also offers the most vivid, detailed New York City ever rendered in CGI, and features the most fleshed-out Black characters, occupying a world rarely seen in any Pixar or Disney film before. (Writer Kemp Powers was key to this.)
We sat (virtually) with Tina Fey, Angela Bassett and Phylicia Rashad who discussed the movie’s message.
The characters in Soul are seeking their “inner spark.” When did you first discover yours?
TINA FEY (“22”): The first time I took a playwriting class, and I wrote a one-act play. That was the first time I ever sat back and watched other people get laughs and stuff from something that I wrote. And it was such a unique thrill that something opened in my brain, like, “Oh, I think this is it for me.”
PHYLICIA RASHAD (“Libba”): I was 11 when I first stood in a spotlight onstage. I held this script, but I’d rehearsed the part and knew it by heart. All I could see was light. So, I just talked to the light all night long. Later one of the parents said, “There’s the little girl who spoke so beautifully.” Well, that’s manna from heaven for an 11-year-old. And I thought, “When I grow up, I’ll be an actress. I’ll play in the light.”
ANGELA BASSETT (“Dorothea”): I was part of this theater group, I was quoting from a Langston Hughes poem while performing onstage — you know, like, “Reverend Butler came by my house today, he said ‘I’m interested in your soul, has it been saved? Or is your heart stone-cold?” Being able to use the poet laureate’s words to express drama, to see the reaction of the audience, that was the beginning.
Tina, how do you relate to 22, who’s pretty sarcastic and jaded?
TINA: When 22 is sarcastic or skeptical of something, it’s really because she’s so afraid of it. She needs to open her mind up to possibilities and push past her fear. I think that’s something I can relate to, and hopefully, a lot of viewers will. Especially coming out in 2020, when we’re all taking stock of what it means to have had a “good year,” and often now it means just taking small joys where you can find them. And being present with the people that you love.
Is there an existential message in the movie you might give to your own kids?
TINA: It was more of a helpful reminder that life isn’t defined by achievement and attainment, but in enjoying the process. The road to where you want to go is also part of your life. And should be lived fully.
ANGELA: Yes, I’ve always been an advocate of my children understanding that life is a continuum: it isn’t that it begins over here and stops over there. There’s that which we see and perceive, and there’s the other that we don’t see.
PHYLICIA: I also believe that life is a continuum. I try to teach my children that, because to understand that is to embody a kind of fearlessness. And also an acceptance.
We next heard from Jamie Foxx, director Peter Docter and screenwriter Kemp Powers.
Jamie, you’ve done animation before, but this character, Joe, is different.
JAMIE FOXX (“Joe”): I’ve done animation, but my youngest daughter was, like, “Yeah, Dad, you’ve done animation but not the good kind.” I said, “What do you mean?” “You’re Pixar now. You made it.”
When did Pixar decide Joe Gardner would be a Black musician?
PETER DOCTER (director): We played around for a while with him being an actor, maybe a scientist. But I mean, jazz performers are fascinating to watch — it’s like a magic trick. So when one of our consultants called jazz “Black improvisational music,” we realized we have to make this character Black. He has to be from that culture that brought us this great American art form.
Kemp, in one scene, Joe visits a local barbershop right after fitting a suit. That seems pretty authentic. Was a big question for you: “How Black is it gonna be?”
KEMP POWERS (co-screenwriter): Well, one major plot point is the brother’s getting a suit and a fade. So it’s a very black movie. I said to Pete, “Well, he also needs a haircut, right?” And someone said, “Well, the haircut isn’t as important as the suit.” And I was like, “I’m gonna disagree and say that the haircut is every bit as important as the threads.” Sometimes, you know, it’s about the presentation. It’s about your body language.
Jamie, how did you relate to the message of Soul, about living in the moment?
JAMIE: I have a phrase that I use, you know: the world has been here billions and billions of years. So 70, 80, 100 years is… what? It’s a blink of an eye. So, I say to everybody, “Don’t waste your blink. Live your life.”
And like Joe, you’ve taken on a mentoring role, especially to young Black men in the entertainment industry. What do you tell them?
JAMIE: What I tell them is, do not fatigue. Do not lay your art to the side. When I talked to Michael B. Jordan or Chadwick (Boseman), you know, everybody that comes in my house, I just say, “Hey, man, the opportunity is so wide-open now. So you got to run. You have to take advantage of it.”
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Disney and Pixar releases Soul in select cinemas starting Dec. 25, Friday, in areas under Modified General Community Quarantine (MGCQ). Visit https://www.facebook.com/waltdisneystudiosph/photos/a.231757700933/10159423130405934/ for details on the list of participating cinemas in areas under MGCQ and for further announcements.